The Newsletter of Land for Wildlife and Garden for Wildlife in Central Australia - April 2014
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G'day LFWers, GFWers, and friends everywhere.

The recent rains are starting to have a noticeable effect on wildlife. Budgerigars and Cockatiel are being seen in increasingly larger flocks around town, and there are numerous bird of prey coming in to take advantage of abundant food. The cover picture this month is an immature Channel-billed Cuckoo. Alice Springs has enjoyed many of these spectacular birds in recent months and Chris takes a closer look at them in an article below.

Our TNRM-funded fox and cat monitoring has kicked into overdrive, with the fox workshop being well-received at Olive Pink Botanic Garden at the end of the month. We are now setting camera traps at a variety of locations and chasing down any reported sightings to try and confirm the presence and location of any animals. Still on the topic of feral control, Spotted Dove are now being seen in much greater numbers along Ross Hwy where in previous years they have been absent or rarely recorded. We still have a few dove traps out at the LFW offices and a trapping workshop looms in the not-too-distant future. Feel free to get in touch with any questions about invasive species and methods of control.

We hope you enjoy this month's edition of your newsletter and we look forward to hearing more of your ideas.

Cheers! 
 
Fox Workshop at Olive Pink Botanic Gardens 
by Chris Watson


(above) The European Red Fox. Difficult to observe around Alice Springs it seems - image: Peter Trimming. Wikicommons.

Towards the end of the month, we continued our feral fox and cat control project with a workshop covering the history and ecology of feral foxes in Australia. The staff at Olive Pink Botanic Gardens were kind enough to host the event, and the grounds at Olive Pink are also one of our monitoring sites.


(above) Our trailcams are out trying to pick up any sign of foxes. In the end though, we may have to rely on human observers.

To date, the response to our call for sightings of foxes around town has been very slow. It seems that most people who have been around town for a few years may have encountered one or two foxes, or perhaps seen one as roadkill on the highway, but reports of live animals are very rare. 


(above) the differences between the tracks of the common predators. You're most likely to confuse the fox track with that of a dog, but as the illustration shows, the fox has a narrower, more elongated print with the two front pads set in front of the side pads rather than between them. Picture from http://www.wildlifeonline.me.uk/red_fox.html

If you couldn't make it to the workshop but are interested in finding out more, here are some links to relevant or interesting information on the Feralscan and Invasive Animals CRC websites. If you're interested in helping us learn more about the movements and distribution of these destructive feral predators please get in touch through the usual email address at lfw@lowecol.com.au 

FOXscan

Invasive Animals CRC

Funded by:

 
Of Little Crows and Big Cuckoos...
By Chris Watson

Ask many Centralians what a Channel-billed Cuckoo is and you are as likely as not to receive a blank look in response. Ask them what a Rain-bird is and you may get a few more knowing responses. But what are these birds? Where do they come from? And where do they go? As it has been a particularly good season for them in Alice Springs it seems like a fitting time to find out.


(above) An adult Channel-billed Cuckoo in Alice Springs in February 2014 - Chris Watson.

The Channel-billed Cuckoo Scythrops novaehollandiae, is the largest member of the cuckoo family Cuculidae. By comparison with most other birds around Alice Springs it is a giant. With adults exceeding a total length of 60cms, and with that huge boney-looking bill, it looks more akin to one of the SE Asian hornbill species than the much smaller Pallid or Horsfield's Bronze-cuckoos that most of us are probably more familiar with.


(above) The young cuckoo, perched in a tree and constantly demanding food from its two hosts. Chris Watson.

Like all cuckoos, the Channel-bill is known as a brood parasite. This simply means that it doesn't build a nest and tend its own young, but sneaks its own egg into the established nest of another species and allows the unwitting host to raise its young for it. In Alice Springs the common hosts of Channel-billed Cuckoos are Torresian and Little Crows, but there is also a pair of nesting Collared Sparrowhawks in town which have raised at least one Channel-billed Cuckoo chick in their time. Elsewhere in Australia the species commonly parasitises the nests of Australian Magpies and butcherbirds, currawongs, and ravens.

The Australian population is migratory and heads north to New Guinea and Indonesia around the close of the wet season. In the Top End they have become known as rain-birds (along with a few other species) because their return coincides with the onset of the wet season. Here in Alice Springs we are close to the southern limit of their inland incursion, but the birds head well down the east coast of Australia as far as eastern Victoria. This year we had plentiful emergences of Golden Drummer Cicadas which provided an abundance of food. Though the species is notable among the cuckoos for being predominantly frugivorous, the birds in my yard this year were witnessed to eat nothing but the fat cicadas which adorned every branch of every tree. On one occasion I even observed a male delicately offer a juicy cicada to his mate as a post-copulatory reward.

There were up to 5 adult birds present in my yard on Ross Highway. With the treed river bed close at hand there were many nests of crows and kites for them to attempt parasitising. When they were in full chorus it was an electrifying bit of theatre. One bird would call its loud 'AWK!' from a prominent perch at one end of the property to attract attention. Then, as the obvious bird was set upon and mobbed by myriad garden birds, the unseen female, lurking in the shadow of a tree fork or deep in foliage, would swoop in to quickly deliver the imposing egg to the untended nest. So the drama played out for days on end around the entire property.


(above) Channel-bill junior with its unsuspecting host/parent. Chris Watson

Finally it was the resident Little Crows that they ended up successfully tricking. For weeks thereafter the young cuckoo, even as a youngster only recently out of the nest already bigger than the adult crows waiting on it, sat at any convenient perch and made soliciting squeaks and squawks to demand a constant supply of food from the harried crows. The sight of a host parent feeding its parasitic-young is always slightly horrifying. The disparity of scale is often so large as to be comical. This is certainly the case if you have ever witnessed a Splendid Fairy-wren frantically stuffing grubs down the gaping maw of a young Pallid Cuckoo - at times it might seem that the tiny parent will disappear down the gullet of the gaping youngster. But the subterfuge played out in the trees around the house for just a few weeks and then the youngster too was gone; headed north no doubt, perhaps to return and ply its sneaky trade against another pair of birds next year.


(above) A european reed-warbler of the genus Acrocephalus feeding a Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus, demonstrating the great size disparity that often occurs between the parasite and its host. Per Harald Olsen. Wiki Commons.

The willingness of the host parents to run themselves ragged after their gargantuan parasitic charges, and their apparent inability to detect the ruse, is among the better studied aspects of bird biology. The host parents have a deeply ingrained instinct to respond to the begging call and the gaping mouth of the chick in the nest. The louder the call and the wider the begging beak, the stronger the urge to stuff it full of food. Brood parasite/host pairs of birds are known from most parts of the world, and many are described as being locked in arms race interactions; an ongoing game of evolutionary one-upmanship. Some parasites have developed the ability to accurately replicate the colour and shape of their target hosts' eggs to avoid their detection and possible ejection from the host nest. Accordingly some hosts have developed the ability to rapidly change the patterns or colour of their eggs in order to more readily identify foreign eggs and eject them before they hatch. It's an ongoing struggle with neither side ever quite getting the upper hand.

So when the wet season next starts to sweep across the upper portion of the NT, keep your ears cocked to the more tree covered parts around Alice Springs and perhaps you'll hear the first of the returning Channel-bills later in the year.

*****

Did you notice any Channel-bills around your property this year? Perhaps you got some good photos of them or witnessed them parasitising a species not mentioned in our story here. We'd love to see your pics or hear any of your stories about these charismatic birds - lfw@lowecol.com.au

In addition the folks at Birdlife Central Australia are sure to be interested, so send them any interesting bird observations you make around the deserts. Perhaps you could even join up to lend your support to bird conservation and research across Australia's arid centre - birdlifeca@gmail.com
 
From the bookshelf...

Finding Australian Birds
by Tim Dolby and Rohan Clarke



This is something of a blind review as this book has not technically been released yet (it is due to hit shelves on the 15th of May). I am acquainted with much of the authors' previous work though, and I think it's safe to assume that this volume will remain true to form.

From what I've seen so far the presentation is stunning. This will not be a surprise to anyone familiar with the name of Rohan Clarke - one of our finest wildlife photographers, and a prolific birder. There are few, if any, in the country who have more comprehensively catalogued our birds than Rohan. In this book he has teamed up with renowned Victorian birder and researcher Tim Dolby (lead author of the highly lauded "Where to see birds in Victoria") to produce a field guide not to bird species, but to birding locations and habitats.

It has been said many times that if you want to find Australian birds, you need to learn to identify Australian bird habitats. This book is designed to help you do precisely that. It goes another step further than this though, in providing information about over 400 sites to go birdwatching around Australia and hopefully track down your quarry. These sorts of site guides have always had an Achille's Heel when it comes to arid Australia due to the nomadic nature of so many of our birds and the fact that bird distribution can change drastically and rapidly in response to conditions. Populations of birds that might have been reliably found for many years in the one convenient spot, may suddenly move on or vanish altogether due to rain, fire, overgrazing, or human destruction of habitat.

We can only hope that this book will avoid these pitfalls by giving the reader a greater ability to identify the right healthy habitat for a species, rather than blindly going to the same spot where the bird has been seen by every other birdwatcher passing through.

It will be available from CSIRO and other booksellers from the middle of May for around $50.


What have you been reading?
We'd love to feature more reviews from members and friends in this section. Have you read some good wildlife books lately? Maybe you have a favourite smartphone app relating to your natural history interests?

Put it all down in an email, and we'd love to include your input in future newsletters. 

 
On The Eco-net...

115mm in 12 hours - Coober Pedy floods

Link to article on ABC

Eating invasive species
Link to article on The Conversation

Cane Toads invading our northern deserts
Link to article in the SMH

Richard Waring's pics of Budgerigar and Cockatiel near Alice Springs
Link to Richard's Website

An active approach to feral bird control in Dubbo
Link to story on ABC Local

The feeding of wild birds: always a hotly debated topic with interesting cultural divides. To feed or not to feed?
Link to story on Radio National

Wild dog attacks on livestock 
Link to story on ABC Rural


 
Thanks for reading folks.

As always we're keen to see or hear about what you've been finding around your LFW/GFW block or on your adventures farther afield. Feel free to send in your wildlfowers, birds, and bugs photos and we'll feature them in next month's newsletter. 

Happy camping!

Jesse, Chris, Matt, & Bill.
April 2014
Copyright © 2014 Low Ecological Services, All rights reserved.


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