Tuesday, December 24, 2013


       Enjoy the Christmas and New Year holiday, but please stay safe.

                  The image is of a male Superb Fairy-wren, a common species of the east and south-east of Australia, including Tasmania. It was recently voted Birdlife Australia's favourite bird, with the Australian Magpie coming in a close second.
                   A big thank you to the regular and occasional visitors and especially to those who take the time to comment. A recurring health issue has rather curtailed my birding activities of late, so I must apologise for the paucity of articles.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

A Tale of Two "Swallows" (b) Dusky Woodswallow

        The second encounter took place a couple of weeks later and less than a kilometre from the Welcome Swallow photo opp. mentioned below. I have taken a little, some might say a large, liberty with suggesting they are both "swallows", because they are not related. They are both summer migrants to Tasmania. As might be suggested by the bill colour, woodswallows are more closely related to Butcherbirds amd Magpies. They are a  little longer than Welcome Swallows, but weigh in at around 35 gram, over 3 times heavier, a solid, often pugnacious, bird. They are usually found in open woodland and often nest in small colonies of a few pairs. Their nests consist of twigs and grass, often placed in the fork of a gum and, in my experience, are among the easiest nests to find.
         Like swallows, they feed on flying insects, making forays from chosen vantage points. They will also forage for food on the ground among the leaf litter, particularly on cool mornings. On warm summer days they can be seen soaring often to great heights chasing flying insects, sometimes in flocks numbering over a hundred. They seem somewhat drab birds, but in the hand, the subtle smokey pink brown body and dark blue grey wings are particularly beautiful--my shots, taken on a dull, overcast day, do not do them justice.
          I was returning from a brief visit to Goat Bluff, on a showery, windy day that had few bright spots save for a fleeting, but exhilarating view of a Peregrine Falcon as it "rushed" by. As I turned off the highway, I noticed a bird in the middle of the road which I couldn't initially ID, and pulled off to the side to use my binoculars on it. It turned out to be a Dusky Woodswallow, but what was it doing in the middle of the road?
               In these situations I invariably take a photograph or two and identify the prey on my PC later, which I did here. My first thoughts were that it had a chrysalis that it was trying to 'unravel'. It was hammering away at whatever it was, raising itself  to its' full height and 'crashing' down forcibly onto the prey. A passing car caused it to fly off  briefly, returning to the road some distance away. Later, on the PC, I could see that the prey was a moderate size beetle, somewhere around the size of a Dung Beetle. Obviously the road made a suitable 'anvil' to hammer the beetle against.
           Woodswallows are in my experience surprisingly resourceful. On a warm late summer day, I stopped to watch a flock of Yellow-rumped Thornbills feeding on the edge of the road. I couldn't make out what they were feeding on, but assumed it was probably seeds. While standing there, I noted, sitting on the power lines some 100 metres or more away, several Dusky Woodswallows. My thoughts drifted back to the Yellowrumps as I tried to work out if I could get close enough to photograph them, but a passing car put paid to that and they flew off. However looking down the road I could see the woodswallows were now flying at speed back and forth along the road, obviously catching some unseen prey. I moved closer. Another passing car and a repeat of the previous excursion from the power line by the woodswallows. Then the penny dropped! The woodswallows were waiting for the passing cars to stir up clouds of very small 'midges' from the roadside and they were taking full toll of them as they were briefly disturbed. I sat and watched for some time, mesmerised by their actions. As I said, surprisingly resourceful.

A Tale of Two "Swallows": (a) Welcome Swallow

       Before spring becomes just a distant memory, I'll relate a couple of encounters with two of our migrant birds. The first is an event that I've often watched, usually from afar, and in recent times made attempts at photographing them, which requires a close approach. The species in the first attempt was the Welcome Swallow, a common enough species in Tasmania during the warmer months, with a few managing to eke out an existence during our winters. I say "eke" out, because these swallows feed almost exclusively on insects, usually caught in flight, and there are precious few insects about in the colder months.
         The venue was the car park of the popular scenic spot, at Goat Bluff, near South Arm. I had intended to wander through the nearby heath, but the car park was near full with the cars of surfers, the western side of the bluff being a popular surfing spot under certain conditions. I was about to drive back out when I spotted swallows coming to a muddy puddle close to the cars and stopped to investigate. I correctly guessed they were collecting material for nest building--they nest in crevices on the nearby cliffs, a far cry from their usual choice of buildings and road culverts.
          They were seemingly oblivious of the comings and goings of cars, the slamming of doors, the loud music and the banter of the surfers as they donned their wetsuits. It seemed a possible photo opp..
           As I mentioned earlier, I had photographed them here before, but the results were far from satisfying. These are birds with very short legs not 'designed' for walking and from my previous attempts a low angle was the "go". I sat down beside one of the large boulders dividing the car park into sections, probably no more than 6 or 7 metres from the small puddle that they were using and waited. At first I thought I may be too close and was about to back off when the first swallows returned. They flew over me, twittering, and after a few flybys decided I was non threatening and alighted at the far end of the puddle and gathered material. I'm guessing that their drive to breed and the opportunity of gathering nesting material from a source rapidly drying up (the sole puddle in the car park) is a strong motivation.
            I sat there for perhaps 20 minutes, punctuated by their visits and the frequent arrival and departure of numerous vehicles passing only metres away from me. A 'kindly' surfer came over to tell me that he had recently been bitten by a jack jumper at the very spot I was sitting. That put me in a slight dilemma! The bite from a jack jumper (an ant c.2cm long) is extremely painful. However, I had unwittingly elected to sit in a slight depression that was wet from an overnight shower and this had permeated my clothing through to my skin--I had a very wet backside. I decided that no self respecting jack jumper would come close--I thanked him for his concern.
           Individual pairs arrived together, always doing a flyby first and both birds collected material at the puddle, both dry grass and mud, sometimes one or the other, other times both. For a bird only weighing around 10 grams, they seemed able to fly with a considerable load of mud and grass.