Australian Safari, 1/18/2019

Sexual Competition

It’s a jungle out there…Of course, in Australia, it often literally was a jungle, or a rainforest at any event. But the figurative meaning of the phrase still resonates: there’s a lot of competition going on. We know about the fight for survival, the bird-eat-bird world and the fight for prime food sources and so forth. But one of the enlightening (and entertaining) aspects of observing bird behavior is watching them compete in courting.

Exhibit A: the Satin bowerbird. Here’s the bower, first picture courtesy of Janet Bauer:

The bower refers not to a nest but to a seduction zone, a piece of performance art, maintained year after year, to melt the heart of the female bowerbird. Note the blue ‘trash’ in front of the bower. For the satin bowerbird, it can only be blue, and placement is intentional. I’ve been told that if you move a piece while the bird is away, it will notice and replace the trinket in its precise former spot. In this case, the source of blue items was human trash, but don’t tell the bird that.

It visited its bower often, not infrequently deciding to add another stick.

You have to admire the effort he went to. I never saw a female observing the bower, which didn’t seem to diminish his obsessiveness about it. She does have lovely lavender eyes, which may be what bewitched him.

While at a different lodge, the proprietor told us, “The bustards are displaying!”, and gave us directions to fields about 20 minutes drive away. The bird book showed us that bustards are large birds preferring open country. In this case the open country was at a cattle ranch- the fences hemming in the cows did not constrain the birds. Here’s a female.

And here’s one displaying male:

And his competition, perhaps a bit more advanced in the art of growing chest feathers.

Not that we could see any interest shown by any of the local females. Tough world-it’s a jungle out there!


American Safari, 1/14/2019

Crabapple trees: the best bird feeder

Since returning from Australia 6 weeks ago I haven’t left our yard. Or to be more accurate, I haven’t left our yard with my camera. The main reasons include the usual: it’s the holiday season, our sons visited, there’s skiing to be done, I even worked a few days. The primary blame, however, falls on Australia. When I came home with 1600 photos AFTER deleting all the rejects, I had to spend some time organizing and reducing the mass of pictures (I think I only have 1100 now). That surfeit of exotic and often gorgeous birds suppressed my interest in making new pictures which would also demand organizing and culling, etc. I have a few more Australia posts to go.

On the other hand, we have three crabapple trees in our front yard. Birds like crabapples. I can’t resist snapping a few shots while the birds chow down.

Recently the trees have been a magnet for a bird I hear often in the summer, but had only seen twice before in my life- the varied thrush.

Varied thrushes live in forests, usually at higher altitude. This year they discovered the bounty the crabapple trees have to offer.

You may not share my excitement at seeing this bird which is, I admit, just a robin with a sense of style. The thrill for me, aside from the striking design, is the abundance after scarcity: two brief sightings ever before this week, now they’ve set up temporary residence in my yard, as many as 8 of them, down from their forest hideaways.

I hope you get to see them, too, and enjoy these not-a-robins. Thanks for reading.

Australian Safari 1/9/2019

Silver gulls

I am not a great fan of gulls. They tend to be bland birds, trash scavengers with a raucous unpleasant call and brash manners. On the other hand, they adapt quickly to people and are therefore easy to photograph. It’s just that they are so infrequently cute! And, admit it, the photos in my recent blog of the silver gull swallowing another bird’s chick whole, headfirst, was not the most endearing view of a bird.

Back on Heron Island (Queensland, Australia), a small island so crowded with birds and humans that ALL the birds are people adapted, snapping photos was a cinch. Since gulls are unafraid by nature, getting close was doubly easy there. Which didn’t mean they reacted kindly to it when sitting on a nest.

Though protesting in no uncertain terms, the gull permitted me to get 5 feet away while refusing to move from its nest. I have to admire the sassiness of this gull, to say nothing of the shocking red ‘lipstick’. If you’re going to protest loudly, do it while wearing something red!

Their sharp warning calls startled me at times. On a different part of the island, near the dining hall, a silver gull walked up behind me several times, scolding me so suddenly and so vigorously from a few feet away that I jumped a few inches in spite of myself. Of course, a few inches may be my entire vertical jump these days…but I digress.

The silver gulls treated each other to loud arguments as well. Though, in truth, I can’t say if this pair below represents a couple, a sibling discussion, or some other behavior not lending itself to human interpretation. Let me assure you,though, it made a big noise!

Thanks for reading.

Australian Safari, 1/3/2019

Black Noddys- Nature “Red in Tooth and Claw”.

Some birds have names that tell you something interesting about them. Take the black noddy. Yes,they’re mostly black, but also the adult pairs ‘nod’ at each other both in courting and later in reinforcing the bond. 

We boated to Heron Island, off the coast of eastern Australia, maybe 500 miles north of Sydney. Friends who had been there a mere month before strongly recommended it (“High point of our trip.”). The ship that took us there, easily 60 feet long with seats for 80 people, had motion sickness bags by every seat. Good thing. On the rough ride over to the island there were times the boat felt airborne for two seconds, everyone bracing for the sickening fall and subsequent hard landing. Lot of green faces by the end. Enough said about that.

Our friends mentioned something about 120,000 birds nesting, but it was hard to know what that meant. 

We found out it meant that most trees on the island, barely a half mile in diameter, were festooned with nest after nest after nest, each consisting of leaves glued together with guano. Many of the nests had chicks in them.

The chicks were often hungry.

How does a seafaring, fish-eating bird feed its helpless young on land? Well, hopefully you won’t need a motion sickness bag yourself by the time I finish showing you.

If there are 120,000 birds on the island and most of the nests succeed in producing chicks, what prevents overpopulation and subsequent depletion of resources? Don’t worry. Nature has its ways (next two photos by Janet Bauer).

The silver gulls would simply fly into a tree and pick off an unattended chick. If the noddys had mobbed the modestly larger gull they could have half killed it, but apparently that’s not in their genes.

Thanks for reading.

Australian Safari (and Hawaii, too), 12/30/2018

Small Birds

When we go to the tropics (in our case, Australia, then Hawaii to recover from Australia-why not?) we hope to see large colorful birds that are unafraid of humans and pose in good light. Not too much to ask, is it? And indeed we saw them, see the previous blog post about parrots for some examples. But after awhile in Australia I began to ask, “Where are the small birds?”. We found them, eventually, though a week in Hawaii produced as many photographs of finches and such as three weeks in Australia. As for big birds? Australia wins hands down. more on that in future posts.

Happily, in the tropics there is simply too much competition for mates for the small birds to be drab. Take the red browed finch: here they are on a branch experiencing togetherness.

They really are pretty little birds. Check out the painted look on this close up.

Almost the exact same size, a chestnut breasted manikin showed up on the same branch by our lodge in Queensland.

Further south but still in Queensland, we spent several days distracted by this wonderfully named character: the superb fairy-wren. Every time I went out to find some other bird I would see one of these sassy creatures hopping around, and think, “I need a better picture of that bird” and spent twenty minutes trying to get close. You can see from its posture it has a lot of character.

Back in the US (Hawaii, anyway) there were more small birds to be found. A bright red bird with a crest- doesn’t he make you want to see more? The red-crested cardinal hails from South America, I’m told, but seems to find Oahu & Kauai agreeable.

It likes to eat grass seed:

Another Hawaiian bird that sported some color for us also has a delightful name: red-vented bulbul.

Dave Barry (the columnist) would doubtlessly say, “That’s a great name for a band!”.

There are other small bird photos, but I’ll stop before I get (too) boring.

Australian Safari, 12/19/2018

Parrot Love

It’s easy to love parrots. They are beautiful, noisy, and have a lot of character. See the female double-eyed fig parrot, above. The name is longer than the bird’s tail!

But what I didn’t know, until we traveled to Australia, was how much parrots like each other. By that, I mean the behavior of mated pairs. Take rainbow lorikeets-their interactions are by turns delightful and touching. 

Their cousins all seem to behave similarly. Here are a pair of galahs (pronounced ga-LAHH for some reason) seriously grooming each other. 

But we got our best look at a pair of sulfur crested cockatoos

Looks like PDA (public display of affection) to me!

Australian Safari #2, 12/10/2018

Jurassic Park

Scientists say (without controversy, I think) that birds are the dinosaurs surviving relatives. The connection has something to do with pelvic structure. Now, that seems a pretty flimsy premise to join huge carnivorous lizards and tiny seed-eating birds separated by 50 million years as kissing cousins, but it’s not my field. I choose to believe the scientists.

Not only that, but I have some supporting evidence in the form of photos of some of the survivors who look suspiciously like they didn’t fall as far from the dinosaur tree as, say, a goldfinch. First take the cassowary.cassowary-7576

A large flightless bird, roughly the size of the front half of a Volkswagen Beetle, it is the only bird known to have killed humans, we were told. When defending itself it kicks with its front feet and can pierce a person’s chest or abdomen with the nail of its inner toe.cassowary-7620

An uncommon bird, we stayed at a lodge near the usual paths of a mated pair with young who had habituated some to humans. The chicks would stay close to dad, often leaning against him.


In the matriarchal cassowary family the male raises the chicks, although the larger female stays in the same territory. Not that the chicks miss anything by being raised by the father only. cassowary-7447

She came by to visit as well. Note that she is estimated to be 25 years younger, and looks it.


But that’s not the only proto-dinosaur we saw. There’s also the camouflaged frogmouth, a bird we only found with the help of local experts. They rest during the day, convincingly imitating a piece of wood on the tree where they are roosting. Here’s a papuan frogmouth with chick.papuan frogmouth-6395

And the tawny frogmouth female.tawny frogmouth-2163

What you can’t tell from the photograph is that these birds don’t move- at least not during my observations (eyes occasionally opened, that’s all I saw them do). They are nocturnal birds, distant relatives of the owls, and they ‘hide’ in plain sight during the day through their camouflage.

I add one last bird to support the dinosaur heritage: the ‘noisy friarbird’ (yes, that’s its name). You can almost see the lizard in it…