Friday, July 29, 2011

Sacred Kingfisher

Sacred Kingfisher, Todiramphus sanctus.
This week the bird in the picture arrives with a swag of mythological associations. This is the Sacred Kingfisher. The shimmering blue-green of the plumage and the buff coloured eyebrow separate him from the more common, Red-backed Kingfisher. This bird has been referred to as “sacred” as far back as the 16th century when early ornithologists noticed the great reverence the bird was held in through much of the Pacific.
Its previous generic name, Halcyon, was a reference to ancient Greek mythology. Ceyx, the King of Thessaly, drowned during a long sea voyage. On hearing of his death, his wife Halcyone, turned into a kingfisher. Hearing the kingfisher’s loud lamentations, the gods brought her drowned husband back from the dead as another kingfisher and the couple were reunited. They created a floating nest for their eggs out on the sea, and Halcyone’s father Aeolus, the god of wind, kept the sea calm so as not to tip his daughter’s eggs into the sea. This is where we get the term “halcyon days” referring to a time of calm and peace. The name Ceyx, is also now used as a scientific name for a different group of kingfishers.
You should keep an eye out for the Sacred Kingfishers as they arrive back from their northerly migration in the coming weeks. Another bird which is on its way back from spending winter in the warmer climes up north is the Rainbow Bee-eater. Mark Carter has reported the first of these birds returning this week to add a splash of colour as we head towards warmer weather.
A bit of maintenance occurring at the sewage ponds will mean a few changes to water levels, but no changes to birding access.
As always, send your sightings to-
…And happy Birding!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike

Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike, Coracina novaehollandiae.

Kyah Gillen, at 12 years old, could be one of Alice Springs’ youngest birders. Kyah reported the bird in the picture this week, a Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike. These birds are fairly common around most of the suburbs of Alice but seem to be particularly abundant around northside this year.
Some people know this bird as a “Shufflewing”, owing to its habit of shuffling its wing feathers back into position every time it lands. Some folks have suggested that it looks like it’s performing “The Macarena”, for those of us unfortunate enough to recall that particular pop monstrosity. You might find Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes nesting this year in a shallow saucer nest which looks much too small for a bird of this size.
Kyah had some other interesting sightings this week, including an unfortunate White-plumed Honeyeater which had been caught by a Collared Sparrowhawk.
Feral Spotted Turtle-doves continue to run rampant over the town, but genuinely intriguing this week was a report of two Brown Cuckoo-doves around Plumbago Crescent. This is a species more at home along the east coast and would be the first record for the NT if confirmed.
The first of the returning migrants has been sighted, fittingly, by the president of the Field Nats, Barb Gilfedder. Barb and some friends found a lone Common Sandpiper at the poo ponds after its epic journey from distant parts of far eastern Asia.
Lastly, I had a great encounter with a small flock of Varied Sitellas along the eastern boundary of the AZRI block during the week. These frenetic little birds are never common to bump into, but always fun to watch as they land on a tree trunk and spiral their way downwards, feeding as they go. Great stuff!
Happy Birding!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Grey-headed Honeyeater

Grey-headed Honeyeater, Lichenostomus keartlandi.

It’s been another big week for birding in The Centre. The Alice Springs Field Naturalists Club conducted their quarterly wader count at the poo ponds on Sunday. Thanks to all who turned out to help, and that data will be forwarded on to the Shorebirds 2020 project by the tireless Barb Gilfedder, who also organised the whole shebang.
On the weekend I caught up with some sizeable flocks of Grey-headed Honeyeaters feasting on blooming hakeas atop Mt. Gillen. If you ever wondered why we don’t have hummingbirds here in Australia, then the answer is in the photo this week.
Honeyeaters have evolved to fill a similar niche in our ecosystem as hummingbirds in other parts of the world – pollinating plants. These blokes are high-octane nectar feeders, but aren’t averse to taking the occasional insect or two. The slightly powdery effect on the forehead of this bird is the pollen from the hakea that it has picked up in its travels and will transport all around the neighbourhood.
Honeyeaters are the largest group of Australian birds by a fair margin, and many of them can be found here in The Centre. Just recently, there has been a report of a Yellow-tinted Honeyeater in the area around Tnorala. This northerly species would be an interesting addition to the list of Centralian vagrants in this season of plenty.
Another interesting report of an albino Brown Falcon came from Mark Carter while birding out on Deep Well Road earlier in the week. That’s one bird that should certainly stand out so keep your camera handy if you’re birding out that way.
Other sightings of note; a much-beleaguered Barn Owl has been roosting in the Ghost Gum behind Office National despite the best efforts of local Butcherbirds, and some huge flocks of Spinifex Pigeons frolicking in the thick spinifex atop the Heavitree Range. The Peregrine Falcons continue to entertain early commuters passing through Heavitree Gap.
Send your sightings to-
Happy Birding!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Black-faced Woodswallow

Black-faced Woodswallows, Artamus cinereus.

Some Centralians struggle with the frosty nights we get in winter. While that is quite understandable, imagine if you only weighed as much as a Woodswallow. At around 35g, woodswallows aren’t even close to some of our smallest birds (some are as tiny as 5g) but with so little meat on their bones, the cold presents a very real danger. These little birds are not-too-distantly related to the crows and ravens – some of the most intelligent birds known. They exhibit this intelligence in their communal solutions to problems like the cold.
You can often see these little birds huddling together against the cold in the early morning or late afternoon. This photograph, of Black-faced Woodswallows, has 16 sharing the shelter of their friends and family but you might see them huddling in much larger flocks of 50 birds or more.
Cooperation in woodswallows doesn’t end with body warmth either. These birds will help each other raise young and defend nests against predators. Some woodswallow species are also known to be accomplished mimics in addition to having their own slightly scratchy song.
The Centre has produced some great sightings of Flock Bronzewing this week. It seems any decent body of open water to the north of town is a chance of attracting this knockout of the pigeon world. Usually in the hour before sunset they have been reported at Kunoth Bore, McGrath Creek, Hamburger Creek, and Warburton Memorial. One visiting birder had some fleeting views of Grey Honeyeater and Varied Sitella about 40kms along the Tanami Rd. Spotted Harriers are still around in good numbers with some accompanied by youngsters from a successful breeding season.
Happy Birding!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Little Black Cormorant

Little Black Cormorant, Phalacrocorax sulcirostris.

These wonderful blue-eyed birds might come as a surprise to some birdwatchers. Cormorants are primarily fish-eaters so they might seem slightly out of place here in the desert.
This is the Little Black Cormorant, and anyone who has been out to visit the waterholes and rivers in the ranges this year will realise there is no shortage of fish for these blokes. These birds can usually be found in spots along the Finke - all the way from Ormiston Gorge through Glen Helen, Finke Gorge and beyond. More recently they’ve even been spotted splashing around in puddles in the Todd River bed in town.
Cormorants don’t have as much oil in their feathers as other waterbirds. This reduces their buoyancy and allows them to dive underwater for their prey. This means that their feathers don’t repel water like a duck’s, necessitating the ritual of standing on posts and tree stumps at the water’s edge drying their wings before flying again – just as I found these two doing at the sewage ponds here in Alice.
Sightings this week: 
Brown Quail – A frequent sighting by firies as they flushed from the long grass during burning off at Simpson’s Gap and along the Todd River
Banded Lapwings – Currently a regular visitor to the poo ponds hiding among the Masked Lapwings
Peach-faced Lovebird – Another small flock of this dreaded feral was seen out on Lyndavale Drive during the week
Diamond Doves – Possibly our sexiest little native dove has been in flocks of up to 80 birds along the roadside out on Colonel Rose Drive
Crested Bellbird – lots of this shy species being seen as juveniles start to grow up and disperse from the family territory.
Happy Birding!