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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.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Oddbills 2

This occasional series began recently here. It seeks to celebrate some especially wonderful and unexpected bird bills; all bills are pretty amazing organs, but some really do make us open our mouths in astonishment at the ability of evolution to produce solutions to problems most of us probably didn't realise existed!

One such belongs to the remarkable skimmers, which comprise a small family, Rynchopidae, of three species of birds related to gulls and terns. There is one species each in Africa, the Americas and southern Asia. They have in common a most improbable-looking bill, in which the bottom mandible is dramatically longer than the top one, giving a distinctly distorted appearance. 
Black Skimmers Rynchops niger, Caulin, Isla de Chiloe, Chile.
African Skimmers R. flavirostris, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.
If you click on these photos to enlarge them, you'll see what I mean.

But, why would you want such a contraption? As ever, the answer comes when you see how they use it.
Black Skimmers, Caulin.
These two are flying along steadily, just above the water, with that long lower mandible skimming (see?) the surface. When it contacts a small animal - fish or shrimp for instance - it automatically snaps shut, flipping the snack inward. Makes perfect sense then.

Nature generally does when we get an insight into why things are the way they are. I love it.

Back tomorrow for the last time in 2012!

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