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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Neither Cuckoo nor Shrike

A few minutes ago a small flock of returning pearly-grey Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes flew over the house, with their typical rolling, musically churring calls. Many of the returning migrants seem to have come back just a touch earlier this year, but this lot are probably about on time. As to where they've been for winter (lucky birds!) we're not really sure, other than to parts warmer and more northern than here, but they could even have been to Papua New Guinea. They are one of the most familiar Australian birds, occurring commonly across the entire continent, from the alps to the central deserts. They have a somewhat endearing habit of an apparent pathological need to shuffle their wings fussily whenever they land - they just can't help themselves. By this alone you can recognise them from a great distance.
Adult (with full black face) and immature Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes.

As a group they're found from Africa to southern Asia to the western Pacific; I cautiously reckon however that the totally unhelpful name arose here, as the earliest record of it I can find is in Edward Morris' excellent 1898 Dictionary of Austral English. The cuckoo bit apparently refers to the dipping flight, and the shrike to the powerful bill (they're caterpillar specialists, among other things); there are quite a few 'shrikes' but no real shrikes in Australia. 

Like other local migrants they come here to breed, in ridiculously tiny and flimsy nests.

The White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike is smaller, and a scarce visitor around here, but much commoner to the north. Despite the name, they come in two quite separate colour morphs, which can be pretty confusing. Furthermore it's a classic trap for young players to confuse the pale form with youngsters of the Black-faceds.
White-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes:
dark morph (Campbell Park, ACT) above;
pale morph (Townsville, Queensland) below.

As this one shows, they certainly don't limit themselves to caterpillars.
White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike with huge phasmid (stick insect), Nowra.
Inland is the magnificent, and aberrant, big Ground Cuckoo-shrike, which tends to be frustratingly toey and hard to approach.
Ground Cuckoo-shrikes, near Coonabarrabran.
Two smaller species also exist - locally the Cicadabird, which sounds remarkably like a stridulating cicada, is uncommon in the ranges, and towards the tropics the Barred Cuckoo-shrike is a handsome fruit-eater.

There's always another day and another post though.

1 comment:

Flabmeister said...

The vernacular naming applied to birds is indeed weird and wonderful. My favourite is 'officially' called Magpie-lark but is neither Magpie nor lark. Depending on where you come from they may be called Murray Magpie (SA), Peewee (NSW, Vic, Qld) or Mudlark (WA mainly I think).

Martin