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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Australia's Bird Families; a brief introduction #3

Here is the third and final instalment of this series of postings which seek to celebrate Australian birds by introducing a member of (nearly) every Australian Family. You may want to go back to the earlier ones if you missed them, for more information about my approach and guidelines. This is a longer posting as it deals with all the Passerine Families (the songbirds, though it's an unsatisfactory term). In the first two posting we met members of 21 Orders, and 43 Families. Today we are dealing with just one Order, Passeriniformes, and some 35 Families. 
Family Pittidae; pittas
Rainbow Pitta Pitta iris, Darwin. The three Australian pittas, mostly ground-foragers and snail specialists,
are the only Australian members of the primitive suboscine passerines which dominate South America.
Family Menuridae; lyrebirds
Superb Lyrebird Menura novaehollandiae, Morton NP, south-eastern New South Wales.
The lyrebirds comprise two very large primitive songbirds with perhaps the most powerful of all songbird voices.
They are famed for the males' virtuosic mimicry, a key part of their courtship.
Family Ptilonorhynchidae; bowerbirds and catbirds
Western Bowerbird Chlamydera guttata, Alice Springs, central Australia. Male bowerbirds
(but not catbirds) built extraordinarily complex bowers which they decorate with bones, feathers,
shells, flowers, fruits, snake skins or human detritus, 'paint' with plant juices, and in which
they display to attract a female. Most of the 10 Australian species are tropical or arid land birds;
there are also 17 in New Guinea
Family Climacteridae; Australian treecreepers

Rufous Treecreeper Climacteris rufus, Porongorups NP, Western Australia.
The six species specialise in running up trees, with large powerful feet, and extracting insects from crevices.
They fill the niche occupied elsewhere by woodpeckers.
Family Maluridae; Australian Wrens
Rufous-crowned Emu-wren Stipiturus ruficeps, Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia.
At just five grams, this tiny bird, which lives in clumps of spiny spinifex grass, lays claim to being
Australia's  lightest bird. Better-known members of the family are the fairy-wrens, with very colourful males;
some of these are familar garden birds.
Family Meliphagidae; honeyeaters and chats
Helmeted Friarbird Philemon buceroides and White-gaped Honeyeater Stomiopera unicolor on Schefflera actinophylla, Darwin. This family is by far the most significant in terms of number of
bird species in Australia, with about 70 species - more than 10% of the continent's species.
A primary character is the brush-tipped tongue, which takes up nectar by capillary action - like a paintbrush.
Family Pardalotidae; pardalotes
Spotted Pardalote Pardalotus punctatus, near Canberra, with nesting material.
Tiny birds with huge voices, just four closely-related species in the family, covering virtually the entire country.
Family Acanthizidae; Australian warblers (including thornbills, scrubwrens, gerygones)
Speckled Warbler Pyrrholaemus sagittatus near Canberra; one of a number of woodland species listed as
threatened.by habitat clearing. The family comprises mostly small brown birds, including some of the
commonest and most familiar species.
Family Pomatostomidae; Australian babblers
Grey-crowned Babbler Pomatostomus temporalis, Longreach Waterhole, Northern Territory.
There are four closely-related species of the inland, bold, chatty and highly gregarious; unusually,
they build roost nests, into which they squeeze at night.
Family Psophodidae; whipbirds, wedgebills and quail-thrushes

Copper-backed Quail-thrush Cinclosoma clarum, west of Norseman, Western Australia. This species
is found in dry habitats across the western half of southern Australia; it was only split from Chestnut
Quail-thrush in 2015. The same publication increased the number of species from four to seven.
Family Artamidae; woodswallows, butcherbirds, currawongs, magpies
Pied Butcherbird Cracticus nigrogularis, Bourke, performing my favourite bird song in the world!
Apart from the woodswallows, this family most comprises large black and white birds with powerful voices,
including some of the most widely-recognised species both in town and around rural homesteads.
Family Campephagidae; cuckooshrikes and trillers
Barred Cuckooshrike Coracina lineata, Jourama Falls, north Queensland.
Probably one of the least familiar of the 7 Australian members of this family, which extends across
Asia and Africa. This one is a rainforest fruit-eater.
Family Neosittidae; sittellas
Varied Sittella Daphoenositta chrysoptera, Mulligans Flat NR, Canberra.
Just one Australian species (plus one in New Guinea) with several distinctively coloured races covering
the entire continent except for the deepest deserts. Highly sociable, flocks work down tree trunks and
under branches, probing with upturned bills.
Family Pachycephalidae; whistlers, shrike-thrushes, shrike-tit
Sandstone Shrike-thrush Colluricincla woodwardi, Kakadu NP.
This species, like most members of the Family, has a glorious voice;
unlike some widespread relations, it is restricted to the Top End sandstone escarpments.
Whistlers generally differ in being smaller and dimorphic, with colourful males.
Family Oriolidae; orioles and figbirds
Oive-backed Oriole Oriolus sagittatus, Nowra, south coast New South Wales.
In my part of the world the melodious warble of the returning orioles is a sure sign of spring.
There are just 3 Australian species, and another 35 in Africa, Europe and Asia; not to be confused
with the unrelated American orioles.
Family Dicruridae; drongoes
Spangled Drongo Dicrurus bracteatus, Canberra. This was a most unusual visitor this far south, but
it is common in summer along the east coast north of here, and present all year round across northern Austalia.
Drongoes are acrobatic aerialists, and are found across southern Asia and Africa, but this is the only
Australian species.
Family Rhipiduridae; fantails
Rufous Fantail Rhipidura rufifrons, Monga NP, southern New South Wales.
Fantails are highly active hunters of flying insects; this one lives in east coast wet forests.
Two other species, Grey Fantail and Willie Wagtail, are familiar and loved urban birds.
There are six Australian species and another 60 in south and south-east Asia.
Family Monarchidae; monarchs
No, not really cheating with two photos; these are not only the same species, but the two
members of a pair of Shining Flycatchers Myiagra alecto at Gunlom Falls in Kakadu NP
(female above, male below). The species is found near water, including in mangroves,
across northern Australia. They have a mix of calls typical of the family, with harsh froglike croaks
and clear whistles; in addition to the 13 Australian species there are another 90 across
southern Asia and Africa.
 

Family Corvidae; crows and ravens
Little Ravens Corvus mellori in dense mist, hunting Bogong Moths among boulders on Mount Kosciuszko,
Australia's highest mountain. There are only five Australian corvids, all black and very similar. It seems that
they arrived relatively recently as Australia approached Asia, but the story is more nuanced than that.
We now know that their ancestors arose here and spread throughout the world, giving rise to colourful
species such as jays; Australian crows are like prodigal children which have come home.
Family Corcoracidae; Australian mudnesters
Apostlebirds Struthidea cinerea, Weddin Mountains NP, southern inland New South Wales.
There are just two species in this family, this one and the White-winged Chough. Both have among the most
complex communal lifestyles in Australia and perhaps in the world. Breeding by a single pair is virtually
unknown, with the entire group involved in building the huge pisé nest, brooding and feeding young.
 Family Petroicidae; Australian robins

Male Rose Robin Petroica rosea, Nowra, New South Wales (this one was literally a backyard bird!).
The Australian robins were so named because they reminded settlers of the completely unrelated
European robins - then robins turned up which were yellow, or black and white, or brown. Oops.
Active insect hunters, there are 21 Australian species, and another 30 in New Guinea and associated islands,
and New Zealand.
That marks the end of the 'old Australian' species; the rest are Old World Families which have only arrived here in recent times (the last few million years). With one exception there are only one or a few species in each family, and most have not penetrated the arid interior. Some have evolved into Australian species, while others also still occur in Asia. I shall be briefer with them.

 Family Alaudidae; larks
Immature Horsfield's Bush Lark, near Canberra. Australia's only native lark, also found in southeast Asia.
Family Hirundinidae; swallows and martins
White-backed Swallows Cheramoeca leucosterna, Nambung NP, Western Australia.
Only four of the family breed in Australia, and three have close relations elsewhere. This lovely species
however apparently arrived much earlier, to evolve into an endemic genus, and live in the dry inland.
Elsewhere there are over 80 species, found in all parts of all unfrozen continents.
Family Acrocephalidae; reed warblers
Australian Reed Warbler Acrocephalus australis, Canberra. Found across Australia wherever there are reed beds,
and where it is the only regular member of the family.
Family Locustellidae; grassbirds, songlarks
Tawny Grassbird Megalurus timoriensis, Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Canberra.
Surprisingly, a couple of these generally  more northern birds turned up late last year, and apparently bred
(and also even further south in Melbourne). Another reminder that the world is warming and changing.
Just five of this family is in Australia, of which the two songlarks are the best-known, with
many more elsewhere.
Family Cisticolidae; cisticolas
Golden-headed Cisticola Cisticola exilis, Canberra. Another bird of reeds and grasses.
This is a huge Family, of 160 species, but only two reach Australia, and both are found far beyond it too.
Family Zosteropidae; silvereyes

Silvereye Zosterops lateralis, Canberra. A very familiar Australian bird, regarded fondly by most
people who don't grow grapes!  Just one other species on the Australian mainland, but 130 others (including
some formerly regarded as babblers) in Africa, Asia and the western Pacific.
Family Sturnidae; starlings
Metallic Starling Aplonis metallica eating palm fruits, Cairns. This colonial bird, which extends from
Indonesia and New Guinea into north Queensland, is our only native starling, though we
have a couple of serious exotic starling pests.
Family Turdidae; thrushes
Bassian Thrush Zoothera lunulata, a relatively common wetter forest bird of eastern Australia,
one of only two native thrushes, though some 170 others are found throughout the entire planet.
Family Dicaeidae; mistletoebird (flowerpeckers)
Male Mistletoebird Dicaeum hirundinaceum, Milang, South Australia.
The only member of a south and south-eastern family of over 50 species. The Mistletoebird
is entirely a mistletoe berry specialist, and is found wherever there are mistletoes -
ie everywhere but Tasmania. They warrant, and will get, their own post here one day.
Family Nectariniidae; sunbirds
Olive-backed Sunbird pair Cinnyris jugularis, Cairns.
An Asian species which has reached north Queensland. The family's 150 species dominate bird-flower
pollination in southern Asia and Africa, but the honeyeaters have the monopoly on that niche here.
Family Estrildidae; waxbills, grass finches
Diamond Firetail Stagonopleura guttata, Canberra. Another south-eastern species threatened by the
loss of grassy woodlands. This family is the Australian success story among recent Old World arrivals here.
There have apparently been three waves of immigration, leading to 18 native species, including the
desert-adapted Zebra Finch (possibly my favourite Australian bird).
Elsewhere 140 species inhabit southern Asia and Africa.
Family Motacillidae; pipits and wagtails
Australasian Pipit Anthus novaeseelandiae, alpine zone, Kosciuszko NP, New South Wales.
The only Australian pipit, found throughout the continent (and New Zealand), of the
66 grassland species found throughout every continent - and as for our one species,
those dwell from alpine (and polar) heaths to deep deserts.
And that concludes what has been something of on odyssey. I do hope at least someone out there found it worth persevering to the end! Birds tend to evoke such extravagances of enthusiasm  - but we might talk about other things here for a while...

NEXT POSTING THURSDAY 23 NOVEMBER, when I'll be back posting 'live'.
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Thursday, 2 November 2017

Australia's Bird Families; a brief introduction #2

This time I'm continuing the odyssey that I began here, a journey through (nearly) all the families of Australian birds, with just one representative of each. You might want to go back to that post if you've not already seen it, to read the rationale and 'rules' of the series, but I'll re-emphasise here that this is not about my photos, of which I have no illusions, but the birds themselves. We start this posting with a huge Order which includes some ten Australian families of mostly seabirds and shorebirds.
Order Charadriiformes
FamilyTurnicidae; buttonquails
Little Buttonquail Turnix velox, Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia.
Despite the name and appearance, buttonquails are not at all related to true quails. Most species
are grassland dwellers; females are larger and more brightly coloured, and males do the childcare.
There are seven Australian species (and another 9 in Asia and Africa).
Order Charadriiformes
Family Burhinidae; stone-curlews
Beach Stone-curlews Esacus magnirostris, Wonga Beach, north Queensland.
These slightly strange and magnificent birds are the largest of this family of ten species.
The other Australian species is the woodland Bush Stone-curlew, which still thrives in the
tropics but is very rare in the south (except for Kangaroo Island, where there are no foxes).
Both are mostly nocturnal.
Order Charadriiformes
Family Haematopodidae; oystercatchers
Sooty Oystercatcher Haematopus fuliginosus, south coast New South Wales.
Despite the evidence of this photo this species is found mostly on rocky shores, while the other Australian
species, Pied Oystercatcher, prefers sand. Their powerful bills lever limpets off rocks, cut the closing muscles
of bivalve shells (if necessary hammering through the shell to get to it) and rip crustaceans apart.
They nest on beaches, which puts them in considerable danger.
Order Charadriiformes
Family Recurvirostridae; stilts and avocets
Banded Stilts Cladorhynchus leucocephalus, Stockyard Plains Reserve, South Australia.
This species, alone in its genus, is a true child of El Niño. It breeds on inland salt lakes, and lives for
decades to ensure that the event will occur at least once in its life.
Only Australia has three members of this 10-species worldwide family.
Order Charadriiformes
Family Charadriidae; plovers
Banded Lapwing Vanellus tricolor, Windorah, south-west Queensland.
A somewhat aberrant plover, which has left the shorelines for the arid inland of Australia.
Part of a large worldwide family of mostly small plump, big-eyed, round-headed shorebirds.
Order Charadriiformes
Family Rostratulidae; painted-snipes
Australian Painted-snipe Rostratula australis, Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Canberra.
These two caused great excitement when they turned up for a while in 2011. They are rare and endangered,
due to the abuse of wetlands and river systems. There are two other species, in Africa/Asia, and South America.
Females are larger and more colourful, and leave the males to do the work with regard to offspring.
Order Charadriiformes
Family Jacanidae; jacanas
Comb-crested Jacana Irediparra gallinacea, Kakadu NP, Northern Territory.
These extraordinary birds (8 species found throughout the world's tropics) walk on lily pads by
spreading their weight with the hugely long toes. This is the only Australian species, though
its range extends through New Guinea to Indonesia. In this family too, females are dominant,
mating with several males and leaving them to get on with it.
Order Charadriiformes
Family Scolopacidae; shore waders, such as sandpipers
Latham's Snipe Gallinago hardwickii, Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Canberra.
Every year this species flies from its breeding grounds in the inland grasslands and heaths
of northern Japan and eastern Siberia, to eastern Australia where it reverts to being a wader.
The majority of this huge family undertake equivalent migrations.
Order Charadriiformes
Family Glareolidae; pratincoles
Australian Pratincole Stiltia isabella, Barkly Tablelands, Northern Territory.
They are long-legged aberrant graceful tern-like waders of the inland plains, hawking for insects.
There are two Australian species, and another 13 scattered across the Old World.
Order Charadriiformes
Family Laridae; gulls and terns
Roseate Terns Sterna dougallii and chick, Lady Elliot Island, Queensland.
It is a curious thing that, although there are some 40 species of both gulls and terns in the world,
and around half of the tern species are found in Australian, we have only three gulls.
Order Columbiformes
Family
Columbidae; pigeons and doves

Spinifex Pigeon Geophaps plumifera, Kings Canyon, Watarrka NP, central Australia.
Of Australia's 25 species (of 300 in the world) this exquisite desert dweller is
probably my favourite; it has a wonderful trick of suddenly materialising in the red landscape!
Order Cuculiformes
Family Cuculidae; cuckoos
Channel-billed Cuckoo Scythrops novaehollandiae, Karumba, north Queensland.
This impressive bird is the world's largest cuckoo, which parasitises big birds like ravens,
currawongs and magpies. It is an oddity that while only 40% of the world's 130 cuckoo species are
parasites, all but one of Australia's are! (The exception is the Pheasant Coucal.)
Order Strigiformes
Family Tytonidae; barn owls
Eastern Barn Owl Tyto javanica, Alice Springs Desert Park, central Australia.
(I confess that though free-flying, this is a captive bird, the only one in this series!)
The twenty species of barn owl (five of which are Australian) are taller and more slender than
the 'typical' owls, with dark eyes and a very pronounced facial disc to capture sound.
All Australian owls are nocturnal.
Order Strigiformes
Family Strigidae; 'typical' owls
Powerful Owl Ninox strenua, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
This magnificent bird - 60cm high - took up residence in the gardens for some weeks in 2007,
wreaking havoc with the local possum and Sugar Glider populations. Only five members of this
family of over 100 species are Australian.
Order Caprimulgiformes
Family Podargidae
Papuan Frogmouth Podargus papuensis, Cairns.
Beautifully camouflaged, the frogmouths (3 Australian species and another 10 in south and south-east Asia)
are nocturnal, roosting in the open and feeding on insects and small vertebrates by night.
Order Coraciiformes
Family Coraciidae; rollers
Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis, Canberra. The rollers are a family of Old World magnificent
aerialists, catching flying insects and undertaking swooping soaring tandem mating display flights.
The Dollarbird, our only roller, migrates to southern Australia to breed, from New Guinea and Indonesia.
Order Coraciiformes
Family Alcedinidae; kingfishers
Azure Kingfisher Ceyx azureus, Barmah Forest, Victoria. Most kingfishers are actually primarily woodland
insect eaters, but this lovely bird is one of two full-time fishing kingfishers in Australia.
We have 10 species in total. (It is customary in Australia to recognise three kingfisher families overall, but
the IOC does not do so, so I must be consistent.)
Order Coraciiformes
Family Meropidae; bee-eaters
Rainbow Bee-eater Merops ornatus, Darwin. This is the only Australian member of this glorious African
and southern Asian family of insect eaters. They breed in southern Australia in excavated sandy burrows.
Order Falconiformes
Family Falconidae; falcons
Australian Hobby Falco longipennis, Karumba, north Queensland, with lunch (a former Diamond Dove).
This swift little hunter is one six Australian falcons (of the world's 67), whose ancestors parted ways
with the the other daytime birds of prey at least 35 million yearts ago;
they are now placed in a quite separate Order from the hawks and eagles.
Order Psittaciformes
Family Cacatuidae; cockatoos
Glossy Black-Cockatoo Calyptorhynchus lathami, Nowra, south coast New South Wales.
A threatened species, this cocky lives almost entirely on the dust-like seeds of Casuarinas,
which it extracts delicately with its huge beak. It's a full-time job.
Order Psittaciformes
Family
Psittaculidae; Old World parrots

Swift Parrot Lathamus discolor, Canberra. This little beauty is one of Australia's rarest birds,
with perhaps only a 1000 pairs, and numbers are falling. The main problems are continued loss of
Tasmanian forest breeding habitat, and predation of the hollow-nesting birds by introduced Sugar Gliders.
Every year they fly across Bass Strait after breeding, to winter in the woodlands of south-eastern Australia.

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