Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Powerful Owl

Powerful Owl on Mt. Coot-tha (Photo by Narca)

Our friend John Coons, a leader for Field Guides, has given us a tip about where to find a Powerful Owl: the track at Mt. Coot-tha near Brisbane. We arrive there and find a whole maze of trails, none of them seeming to match John's description of the place. So... what to do?

It's early morning in eastern Australia; mid-afternoon––yesterday––in Arizona. I pull out my cell phone and it works! "Hi, John, this is Narca."

"Where are you?!" "Australia, on the top of Mt. Coot-tha, and we're confused." Soon John has set us straight, and we are climbing a trail alongside a stream, an excited Noel in the lead. He is first to spot the owl.

A bird of of great dignity, the Powerful Owl is unperturbed by our adoration and photo-taking. It's in a quintessentially Australasian genus of owls, the Ninox. Ninox owls are quite unusual, not only in their proportions, but in the fact that the males of the three largest Ninox species (including the Powerful Owl) are larger than the females. Usually it's the other way around in raptors.

Biologists have advanced many theories to try to explain the usual larger size of female raptors, but Noel says that they nearly always ignore the big exception to the rule: the three Ninox owls. He thinks that understanding the exception holds the key to our understanding the basis for the entire phenomenon of female raptors being larger than male raptors. I'm intrigued by that insight.

Aboriginal art on Mt. Coot-tha (Photo by Narca)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Of Pythons and Flying Foxes

Spectacled Flying Foxes in Cairns (Photo by Narca)

Cairns in Queensland is justly famous for offering splendid birding along its Esplanade and excellent diving and snorkeling along the Great Barrier Reef. Not everyone, however, knows about the colony of huge bats––Spectacled Flying Foxes––that roosts in the large trees on the grounds of Cairns' main public library.

Wherever colonial animals gather, their predators aren't far away. We've heard intriguing rumors of Amethystine Pythons haunting the flying fox colony at the library. Who wouldn't want to see a snake with a name like that?!

Finding the bats is no problem. Any of several senses (vision, hearing, smell) leads us right to them. But the snake proves tougher, and it is hard to imagine where on these grounds a large snake might conceal itself well enough to live into magnificent old age.

Jim, ever the intrepid explorer and seeker-of-knowledge, sets out to find answers, starting in the obvious place––the library. Libraries have reference librarians, after all. As closely as I can reconstruct the conversation secondhand, it goes something like this:

Jim: "We've heard that the bat colony outside attracts pythons. Would you know where we might see one?"

Librarian: "There aren't any snakes here," in her best stern voice.

Jim: "But someone who'd seen one here...."

Librarian: "I've been here 20 years. If we'd ever had a snake here, I would have heard about it."

Jim: "But..."

Librarian: "No snakes!!"

Jim retreats, but later returns with another question. A different librarian sees him approaching and, holding up her hand to ward him off, exclaims simply, "NO!" delivered at a volume you don't often hear in libraries.

Undeterred, Jim finds the Aboriginal groundskeeper and asks him about seeing pythons. This man takes the question completely in stride and muses, "Not here. But you could try the mangroves."

So the flying foxes at the Cairns public library seem to have chosen their python-free dayroost with considerable wisdom and forethought.

Flying Fox Mosaic at the Cairns Esplanade (Photo by Narca)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lamington's Ancient Forest

Tree fern in Lamington's forest (Photo by Narca)

Lamington National Park's system of hiking trails penetrates the ancient, mossy Antarctic Beech forest, a relict from deeptime––from the misty, long-ago era of Gondwanaland. Antarctic Beech, a species of Nothofagus, is related to our oak trees, although they are no longer considered to be in the same family. The presence of Nothofagus species in Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, Argentina and Chile, plus Nothofagus fossils in Antarctica, gives us strong botanical evidence of the ancient fusion of these southern continents.

Giant Brush Box tree (Photo by Narca)

Jim and I hike a 10-mile circuit that immerses us in Lamington's immensely old Nothofagus forest, before dropping into a spectacular valley of waterfalls. The trail eventually loops past other giants at a lower elevation––1500-year-old Giant Brush Box trees, whose limbs reach high into the sunlit canopy. Along the trail, a female Paradise Riflebird (one of the birds of paradise) forages in a leaf cluster, high up in one of the forest giants. An irruption of bewildering sounds betrays the presence of an Albert's Lyrebird, digging for morsels behind a fallen log. Lyrebirds are among the world's finest mimics.

Glossy Black Cockatoo in Casuarina (Photo by Narca)

From the World Heritage Site of Lamington, we descend into the lowlands via Duck Creek, a route that puts our 4WD rental car through its paces. Along the way, a cooperative pair of Glossy Black Cockatoos dines on woody Casuarina fruits, one of their favorite foods.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bowra Station's Falcons and Parrots

Sunset along the Mitchell Highway (Photo by Narca)

Australian skies are brilliant, and their sunrises and sunsets magnificent. One such sunset graces the evening as we approach Bowra Station.

Bowra Station in southern Queensland, near the town of Cunnamulla, has become justly famous in birding circles for the rare species that thrive there. The owners, Ian and Julia McLaren, are selling Bowra to the Australian Nature Conservancy, so its management is now in a period of transition. Visitors may camp there, for a small fee.

Birding at Bowra Station (Photo by Narca)

Our first morning at Bowra, we enjoy the company of Aussie birders Roger and Greg. As everyone is standing around chatting, a family group of four Gray Falcons flies in, at first directly overhead, then spiraling in great circles till they are very high and distant. Gray Falcons are exceedingly rare; one of our new friends has been looking for the species for 40 years. And here they are. Birding has moments like that, and when such a moment comes after 40 years of searching, it is sweet indeed.

Bourke's Parrot (Photo by Narca)

During our two days at Bowra, other very interesting local species also cooperate: Chestnut-breasted Quail-Thrush; Hall's Babbler; White-browed Treecreeper––and Bourke's Parrot. We have given up on the parrot, having tramped through miles of country under the mulga trees, when Jim glimpses two of them flying up from the grass into a tree. Bourke's Parrots are lovely, subtly-colored grass parrots, rarely seen.

Tawny Frogmouth at Bowra Station (Sketch by Narca)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Platypus at Eungella and Yungaburra

Platypus at Eungella National Park (Photo by Narca)

Eungella National Park in Queensland encompasses lovely montane forest where pools of the Broken River support a thriving population of Platypus, one of Australia's two monotremes (egg-laying mammals). We arrive at the visitor center in late afternoon and hike a short way to a beautiful upper pool fringed in rock at one end. From the rocks, we overlook the water, where a Platypus dives, rolls, filters water at the surface with its odd leathery bill, and eventually, in the gathering dusk, swims directly below my perch on the rocks.

Early next morning, we return to the Broken River and see four of the little charmers. One emerges from the river and waddles swiftly over a sandbar and under a bank, startling a White-faced Heron as it brushes past. Platypus are nocturnal and crepuscular–they emerge in the hours around dusk to forage for invertebrates, and return to their burrows in the early morning hours.

Another very good place to look for Platypus is the river running through the village of Yungaburra in the Atherton Tablelands. The town has provided access and a trail along the river.

The Language of Oz

Young Wedge-tailed Eagle (Photo by Narca)

The Australian language is hauntingly like–and unlike–its American counterpart. We immediately begin to play with the slang. If you happen to drive past a wedgie (Wedge-tailed Eagle) or a tree full of cockies, just chuck a U-ey, mate, and you'll be right. We must have chucked hundreds of U-eys. Then one night at a little restaurant in Musgrave, the TV announcer in the background mentions that some ball player had "chucked a sickie." Jim investigates: the player had taken a day of sick leave! That must have caused some of his fans to "crack a mental" or "throw a wobbly!"

Friday, August 21, 2009

Australia, June & July 2009

Galah, an Australian Cockatoo (Photo by Narca)

Alan and I just returned from 5 weeks in Australia (followed by a week of butterflying and clamming in the Pacific Northwest) with our friends Noel Snyder and Jim Shiflett. We camped the entire time, except for the last night before our flight back and two nights on Artemis Station in the remote outback of Cape York. It’s easy to do a camping vacation in Australia, since so many of their “caravan parks” have showers and laundry.

A major highlight was our stay with the Shepherds on Artemis Station, which was arranged by Noel's friend Joe Forshaw, Australia's parrot expert. The Shepherds welcomed us into their home, and we exchanged stories into the night, seated around their large dining table. Early in the morning, a Black-backed Butcherbird flew through the open windows and landed on a chairback, awaiting a handout. Laughing Kookaburras greeted the sunrise from the clothesline. A flock of 200 Galahs nibbled grass seeds in the front yard.
Black-backed Butcherbird at Artemis Station (Photo by Narca)

Male Golden-shouldered Parrot at Artemis Station (Photo by Narca)

Artemis is home to the endangered and very beautiful Golden-shouldered Parrot. Sue Shepherd has observed and monitored the parrots for many years, and all of us old field hands were highly impressed by her expertise and the subtlety of her perception. She spent two mornings in the field with us, seeking out parrots. This time of year (July) the "chickens" have all fledged, and parrot families are hanging out unobtrusively with small mixed flocks. The young have a soft vocalization, but the adults are more often silent. Sue's technique is to look first for the flock's sentry birds: Rainbow Bee-eaters and Gray-crowned Babblers. They are much easier to spot!

Rainbow Bee-eater in mangroves, Townsville (Photo by Narca)

In the photo below, Sue is showing us a recently-used parrot nest in a "witch's hat" termite mound. The termites were walling off the nest entrance, and soon it won't be visible. If the parrots nest in too large a termite colony, the termites can wall off the entrance too quickly, and seal the young inside. So nesting is tricky business!

Sue Shepherd with us at a parrot nest (Photo by Narca)