Monday, 25 July 2016

Colours in Nature; gingery shades 4 - more Australian birds

A while ago now I started another in my sporadic series on colours in nature, this one on the range of rich red-brown colours which we refer to variously as rufous, copper, chestnut and rusty among others. It was a rewarding lode to mine too, and after three instalments I decided to rest it for a while to look at other aspects of the natural world. I now want to conclude the series with two more offerings on rusty (etc) birds. As you read this I'm helping with bird surveys in the remote Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia, so this is one I prepared earlier, as they say on the cooking shows. 
Radjah Shelduck Tadorna radjah, south of Darwin.
This gorgeous tropical shelduck of northern Australia, New Guinea and some nearby islands I think
well illustrates why I'm so fond of these shades.
In that first posting I limited myself to birds with Chestnut or Rufous in their name, and there were plenty of those; these last two postings will celebrate other birds of essentially the same colours, starting today with some Australian examples. Just to reiterate, the chemicals that make the Radjah Shelduck glow coppery, and make red-headed people 'red', are a class of melanins called phaeomelanins (or pheomelanins). Melanins are produced in the body, unlike some other pigments we've discussed in the past which can only be obtained in food. Combinations of various phaeomelanins and brown or black eumelanins give rise to all the shades we'll be looking at over the next two postings, plus others. Some of the birds which follow are fully bedecked in rich rusty shades, others just sport highlights. And now, let's just enjoy them.

Orange-footed Scrubfowl Megapodius reinwardt, south of Darwin. It does indeed have splendid
orange feet (and legs) but it's the rusty wings and cap we're noting today.
This small mound-builder (or megapode) incubates its eggs in huge mounds of composting leaf litter.
They are found in tropical Australia, New Guinea and into the Indonesian archipelago.
Australasian Grebe Tachybaptus novaehollandiae, Darwin.
I love the chestnut neck patch it dons during breeding.
Nankeen Night Heron Nycticorax caledonicus, Canberra. This attractive crepuscular heron is found throughout
most of Australia and through Melanesia to the Philippines.
‘Nankeen’ derives from Nankin or Nanking, a town in Kiangsu province, China, which gave its name to a widely used cheap yellowish-brown cotton cloth manufactured there, which in turn came to be used for the colour.
This soft pre-dawn light doesn't do proper justice to the intensity of the colour.
This is not the only Australian bird named for this colour association, though the word hasn't been used in any other bird name elsewhere in the world.
Nankeen Kestrel Falco cenchroides, Canberra.
Brahminy Kite Haliastur indus, Territory Wildlife Park, Darwin.
This gloriously-toned raptor of the coast and wetlands is found from sub-tropical Australia to India.
Australian Pratincole Stiltia isabella, Barkly Tablelands, Northern Territory.
I love the rich chestnut patches on the sides, which show well in flight.
This one seemed keener on the bitumen than safety might recommend.
Red-capped Plover (or Dotterel) Charadrius ruficapillus, south coast New South Wales.
This very loose use of  'red' for this shade is more often encountered with regard to mammals
(eg fox, deer or kangaroo).

Grey-crowned Babblers Pomatostomus temporalis, Alice Springs, central Australia.
Only race rubeculus, of northern and central Australia, has the rufous undersides.
White-browed Woodswallow Artamus superciliosus male, Canberra.
Yet another gloriously rusty bird! The woodswallows are not at all related to true swallows, though
they do hunt aerial insects. This one is nomadic across the dry inland, reaching the south-east
(including Canberra) to breed in drought years.
Zebra Finch Taeniopygia guttata, Bourke, New South Wales.
The little chestnut cheek patch is only worn by the male. A ubiquitous little bird found across inland Australia.
Which brings us to the end of my offerings for this week. I'll conclude next time with some overseas birds which share these attractive colours.

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