About Me

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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. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Oddbills 3

This is the third in a sporadic series on bird bills that are even more remarkable than this wonderful organ normally is. The previous offering in this series can be found here.

Today you get two for the price of one. Although our two stars are entirely unrelated (indeed neither has any apparent close relatives) they have surprisingly similar bills. 

The dramatic Shoebill Balaeniceps rex (ie 'king whale-head!') is a big bird indeed, standing up to 1.5 metres high and with a massive and unlikely-looking bill well over 20 centimetres long. It is a resident of the huge papyrus swamps of central east Africa, from Zambia north to Sudan. Due to the difficulty in penetrating these dense wet vastnesses it is not well known, and even its populations are uncertain. Like many other large birds it soars, and this is how it is often first seen, high over the reedbeds.
Shoebill, Murchison Falls National Park.
The slightly mad-looking eyes can be a bit disconcerting, but more so I suspect
if you were about to be seized by that huge bill!
The wickedly-hooked tip can be seen below.

I feel very privileged to have seen this special bird, but we couldn't get very close.
A scattered herd of elephants was starting to take interest in us and our local guide and driver, Livingstone, was forced to thread our way out in the four-wheel drive through some very tricky broken ground, while avoiding grumpy jumbos.
The bill is an all-purpose prey trap, though its emphasis is on large fish, especially lungfish and catfish. A range of other prey has been reported, and in some areas water snakes form a significant part of the diet. In addition to the hooked tip there are serrations along the edges, for further gripping and cutting efficiency. Adults will also carry loads of water in it for chicks in the ground-based nest for the first weeks of their life, until they can walk to water.

Half the world away, in another part of Gondwana, the Boat-billed Heron Cochlearius cochlearius is found throughout much of the tropical Americas, from Mexico south through central America and down to northern Argentina. Despite this large range it is not often seen - I've only seen it twice in nine trips to South America. It is currently placed in its own sub-family, but there are those who would reinstate an older view which believes that it warrants its own family, like the Shoebill.
Boat-billed Heron, Sacha Lodge, Amazonian Ecuador.
One of the reasons it is hard to find is that it is nocturnal, coming out from a secluded roost on dusk.
This beautiful bird was seen from a canoe in a channel in fading light, sorely testing both my basic camera and me!
(In the circumstances I wasn't too unhappy with this result.)
The snappy long black crest can just be seen.
It is only a third the size of the Shoebill, and so the similarly flattened and hooked bill is much smaller. It too snaps up a range of prey, especially fish and invertebrates and small land mammals. It also uses it as a scoop, in a way that no other heron does that I can think of. 

More marvellous bills coming up sometime in the future; I hope you've enjoyed these as much as I did.



Susan said...

A Shoebill featured in one of David Attenborough's recent series on Africa. The graphically presented fate of one of its chicks, and that of an elephant calf in the previous episode caused a good deal of discussion about how much viewers really need to see.

Ian Fraser said...

Yes, that series has just got to Australia too - sadly on one of the commercial channels, but by taping and skipping ads one can get a reasonably uninterrupted viewing. And his Galapagos series that you mentioned some time ago has also just started, this time blessedly back on the ABC.