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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.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

"Good night, and thanks for the tinamou..."

In 10 trips to South America I'd never managed to see a tinamou, to my chagrin. I'd heard them, and on one occasion the group just in front of me saw some walk across the track, but not me. It's possible I've even mentioned the fact to other travelling companions...

They really are a most interesting family of birds, close to the most ancient of living birds. Together with the ratites - the mostly large, flightless runners of the southern continents, emus, cassowaries, kiwis, rheas and ostriches (plus extinct moas and Madagascan elephant birds) - they comprise the grouping known as the Palaeognathae, 'ancient palates'. This refers to primitive palate characteristics which are more reminiscent of reptiles than other living birds. All other birds belong the 'other' grouping, the Neognathae. Some put the ratites and tinamous into separate orders, others insist they are all part of one order of very closely related birds.
A South American ratite; Darwins Rhea father and chicks, Torres del Paine NP, southern Chile.
Another reminder of the close relationship between rheas and tinamous is the breeding behaviour. Tinamou males call to attract females, one of whom mates with him and then leaves him with a clutch of eggs to brood on the ground,
while she goes off to find another male for another clutch. This is not identical to ratite breeding but is very similar.
The key difference between the two Palaeognathae groups is that the tinamous retain the keel on the breastbone, which is the anchor point for the great flight muscles, and can still fly, though reluctantly and inexpertly. It seems that the ratites broke away early from the tinamous and then diversified in the Gondwanan lands.

There are 47 tinamou species found throughout most of Central and South America, in pretty much every habitat type, but they are notoriously shy and skulking.

One night recently at Napo Lodge within the magnificent Yasuní National Park in the Amazon basin in Ecuador I was about to have a shower prior to collapsing for the night when a knock on the door was followed by "come quickly, I have something you want to see". It was Dani, the lodge-employed guide attached to our group, who had heard about my desire for tinamous from Marcelo, our own guide. He'd seen one roosting nearby a few days previously and had gone to see if it was still using the same site; it was...

With torches we descended into the rainforest on muddy tracks and after a few hundred metres, there it was above the track.
Great Tinamou Tinamus major.This  is a big bird, up to 45cm long and weighing well over a kilogram.
It has been heavily hunted and suffers from forest clearance, but is doing better than some other species.
We didn't stay long, not wanting to scare it off into the night, especially when dazzled by our torches. It was a very special moment for me and one I'll never forget, not only for the wonderful bird itself, but for the kindness of Dani and Marcelo. Of course I still want to see one on the ground in the daytime, but for now I'm very content.

And as a footnote, on the way back we saw another delight that I'd only read about, a beautiful coral snake. These are highly venomous, but small and not readily encountered.
Coral Snake, probably Micrurus sp., disappearing under a log.
There are some 20 species in Ecuador and I can't hazard a guess as to the species, but it capped a memorable night.
BACK ON MONDAY

3 comments:

The happy wanderer. said...

It's a good feeling when a sighting is finally achieved!

Les Mitchell said...

I saw Great (2 locations), Little and Highland Tinamou in Costa Rica this year. Brief but clear views of each. So perhaps Costa Rica is a 'better' place to see them as I don't have your astute bird observation skills!

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks HW - it is indeed!

Les, putting aside for now your unjustified modesty as a birder, it certainly seems as though CR is a place for the tinamou-deprived. On the other hand it might just be that they've been of those bird 'blind spots' that we all have and others just don't have my problems seeing them!