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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'.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Australia's Bird Families; a brief introduction #3

Here is the third and final instalment of this series of postings which seek to celebrate Australian birds by introducing a member of (nearly) every Australian Family. You may want to go back to the earlier ones if you missed them, for more information about my approach and guidelines. This is a longer posting as it deals with all the Passerine Families (the songbirds, though it's an unsatisfactory term). In the first two posting we met members of 21 Orders, and 43 Families. Today we are dealing with just one Order, Passeriniformes, and some 35 Families. 
Family Pittidae; pittas
Rainbow Pitta Pitta iris, Darwin. The three Australian pittas, mostly ground-foragers and snail specialists,
are the only Australian members of the primitive suboscine passerines which dominate South America.
Family Menuridae; lyrebirds
Superb Lyrebird Menura novaehollandiae, Morton NP, south-eastern New South Wales.
The lyrebirds comprise two very large primitive songbirds with perhaps the most powerful of all songbird voices.
They are famed for the males' virtuosic mimicry, a key part of their courtship.
Family Ptilonorhynchidae; bowerbirds and catbirds
Western Bowerbird Chlamydera guttata, Alice Springs, central Australia. Male bowerbirds
(but not catbirds) built extraordinarily complex bowers which they decorate with bones, feathers,
shells, flowers, fruits, snake skins or human detritus, 'paint' with plant juices, and in which
they display to attract a female. Most of the 10 Australian species are tropical or arid land birds;
there are also 17 in New Guinea
Family Climacteridae; Australian treecreepers

Rufous Treecreeper Climacteris rufus, Porongorups NP, Western Australia.
The six species specialise in running up trees, with large powerful feet, and extracting insects from crevices.
They fill the niche occupied elsewhere by woodpeckers.
Family Maluridae; Australian Wrens
Rufous-crowned Emu-wren Stipiturus ruficeps, Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia.
At just five grams, this tiny bird, which lives in clumps of spiny spinifex grass, lays claim to being
Australia's  lightest bird. Better-known members of the family are the fairy-wrens, with very colourful males;
some of these are familar garden birds.
Family Meliphagidae; honeyeaters and chats
Helmeted Friarbird Philemon buceroides and White-gaped Honeyeater Stomiopera unicolor on Schefflera actinophylla, Darwin. This family is by far the most significant in terms of number of
bird species in Australia, with about 70 species - more than 10% of the continent's species.
A primary character is the brush-tipped tongue, which takes up nectar by capillary action - like a paintbrush.
Family Pardalotidae; pardalotes
Spotted Pardalote Pardalotus punctatus, near Canberra, with nesting material.
Tiny birds with huge voices, just four closely-related species in the family, covering virtually the entire country.
Family Acanthizidae; Australian warblers (including thornbills, scrubwrens, gerygones)
Speckled Warbler Pyrrholaemus sagittatus near Canberra; one of a number of woodland species listed as
threatened.by habitat clearing. The family comprises mostly small brown birds, including some of the
commonest and most familiar species.
Family Pomatostomidae; Australian babblers
Grey-crowned Babbler Pomatostomus temporalis, Longreach Waterhole, Northern Territory.
There are four closely-related species of the inland, bold, chatty and highly gregarious; unusually,
they build roost nests, into which they squeeze at night.
Family Psophodidae; whipbirds, wedgebills and quail-thrushes

Copper-backed Quail-thrush Cinclosoma clarum, west of Norseman, Western Australia. This species
is found in dry habitats across the western half of southern Australia; it was only split from Chestnut
Quail-thrush in 2015. The same publication increased the number of species from four to seven.
Family Artamidae; woodswallows, butcherbirds, currawongs, magpies
Pied Butcherbird Cracticus nigrogularis, Bourke, performing my favourite bird song in the world!
Apart from the woodswallows, this family most comprises large black and white birds with powerful voices,
including some of the most widely-recognised species both in town and around rural homesteads.
Family Campephagidae; cuckooshrikes and trillers
Barred Cuckooshrike Coracina lineata, Jourama Falls, north Queensland.
Probably one of the least familiar of the 7 Australian members of this family, which extends across
Asia and Africa. This one is a rainforest fruit-eater.
Family Neosittidae; sittellas
Varied Sittella Daphoenositta chrysoptera, Mulligans Flat NR, Canberra.
Just one Australian species (plus one in New Guinea) with several distinctively coloured races covering
the entire continent except for the deepest deserts. Highly sociable, flocks work down tree trunks and
under branches, probing with upturned bills.
Family Pachycephalidae; whistlers, shrike-thrushes, shrike-tit
Sandstone Shrike-thrush Colluricincla woodwardi, Kakadu NP.
This species, like most members of the Family, has a glorious voice;
unlike some widespread relations, it is restricted to the Top End sandstone escarpments.
Whistlers generally differ in being smaller and dimorphic, with colourful males.
Family Oriolidae; orioles and figbirds
Oive-backed Oriole Oriolus sagittatus, Nowra, south coast New South Wales.
In my part of the world the melodious warble of the returning orioles is a sure sign of spring.
There are just 3 Australian species, and another 35 in Africa, Europe and Asia; not to be confused
with the unrelated American orioles.
Family Dicruridae; drongoes
Spangled Drongo Dicrurus bracteatus, Canberra. This was a most unusual visitor this far south, but
it is common in summer along the east coast north of here, and present all year round across northern Austalia.
Drongoes are acrobatic aerialists, and are found across southern Asia and Africa, but this is the only
Australian species.
Family Rhipiduridae; fantails
Rufous Fantail Rhipidura rufifrons, Monga NP, southern New South Wales.
Fantails are highly active hunters of flying insects; this one lives in east coast wet forests.
Two other species, Grey Fantail and Willie Wagtail, are familiar and loved urban birds.
There are six Australian species and another 60 in south and south-east Asia.
Family Monarchidae; monarchs
No, not really cheating with two photos; these are not only the same species, but the two
members of a pair of Shining Flycatchers Myiagra alecto at Gunlom Falls in Kakadu NP
(female above, male below). The species is found near water, including in mangroves,
across northern Australia. They have a mix of calls typical of the family, with harsh froglike croaks
and clear whistles; in addition to the 13 Australian species there are another 90 across
southern Asia and Africa.

Family Corvidae; crows and ravens
Little Ravens Corvus mellori in dense mist, hunting Bogong Moths among boulders on Mount Kosciuszko,
Australia's highest mountain. There are only five Australian corvids, all black and very similar. It seems that
they arrived relatively recently as Australia approached Asia, but the story is more nuanced than that.
We now know that their ancestors arose here and spread throughout the world, giving rise to colourful
species such as jays; Australian crows are like prodigal children which have come home.
Family Corcoracidae; Australian mudnesters
Apostlebirds Struthidea cinerea, Weddin Mountains NP, southern inland New South Wales.
There are just two species in this family, this one and the White-winged Chough. Both have among the most
complex communal lifestyles in Australia and perhaps in the world. Breeding by a single pair is virtually
unknown, with the entire group involved in building the huge pisé nest, brooding and feeding young.
 Family Petroicidae; Australian robins

Male Rose Robin Petroica rosea, Nowra, New South Wales (this one was literally a backyard bird!).
The Australian robins were so named because they reminded settlers of the completely unrelated
European robins - then robins turned up which were yellow, or black and white, or brown. Oops.
Active insect hunters, there are 21 Australian species, and another 30 in New Guinea and associated islands,
and New Zealand.
That marks the end of the 'old Australian' species; the rest are Old World Families which have only arrived here in recent times (the last few million years). With one exception there are only one or a few species in each family, and most have not penetrated the arid interior. Some have evolved into Australian species, while others also still occur in Asia. I shall be briefer with them.

 Family Alaudidae; larks
Immature Horsfield's Bush Lark, near Canberra. Australia's only native lark, also found in southeast Asia.
Family Hirundinidae; swallows and martins
White-backed Swallows Cheramoeca leucosterna, Nambung NP, Western Australia.
Only four of the family breed in Australia, and three have close relations elsewhere. This lovely species
however apparently arrived much earlier, to evolve into an endemic genus, and live in the dry inland.
Elsewhere there are over 80 species, found in all parts of all unfrozen continents.
Family Acrocephalidae; reed warblers
Australian Reed Warbler Acrocephalus australis, Canberra. Found across Australia wherever there are reed beds,
and where it is the only regular member of the family.
Family Locustellidae; grassbirds, songlarks
Tawny Grassbird Megalurus timoriensis, Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Canberra.
Surprisingly, a couple of these generally  more northern birds turned up late last year, and apparently bred
(and also even further south in Melbourne). Another reminder that the world is warming and changing.
Just five of this family is in Australia, of which the two songlarks are the best-known, with
many more elsewhere.
Family Cisticolidae; cisticolas
Golden-headed Cisticola Cisticola exilis, Canberra. Another bird of reeds and grasses.
This is a huge Family, of 160 species, but only two reach Australia, and both are found far beyond it too.
Family Zosteropidae; silvereyes

Silvereye Zosterops lateralis, Canberra. A very familiar Australian bird, regarded fondly by most
people who don't grow grapes!  Just one other species on the Australian mainland, but 130 others (including
some formerly regarded as babblers) in Africa, Asia and the western Pacific.
Family Sturnidae; starlings
Metallic Starling Aplonis metallica eating palm fruits, Cairns. This colonial bird, which extends from
Indonesia and New Guinea into north Queensland, is our only native starling, though we
have a couple of serious exotic starling pests.
Family Turdidae; thrushes
Bassian Thrush Zoothera lunulata, a relatively common wetter forest bird of eastern Australia,
one of only two native thrushes, though some 170 others are found throughout the entire planet.
Family Dicaeidae; mistletoebird (flowerpeckers)
Male Mistletoebird Dicaeum hirundinaceum, Milang, South Australia.
The only member of a south and south-eastern family of over 50 species. The Mistletoebird
is entirely a mistletoe berry specialist, and is found wherever there are mistletoes -
ie everywhere but Tasmania. They warrant, and will get, their own post here one day.
Family Nectariniidae; sunbirds
Olive-backed Sunbird pair Cinnyris jugularis, Cairns.
An Asian species which has reached north Queensland. The family's 150 species dominate bird-flower
pollination in southern Asia and Africa, but the honeyeaters have the monopoly on that niche here.
Family Estrildidae; waxbills, grass finches
Diamond Firetail Stagonopleura guttata, Canberra. Another south-eastern species threatened by the
loss of grassy woodlands. This family is the Australian success story among recent Old World arrivals here.
There have apparently been three waves of immigration, leading to 18 native species, including the
desert-adapted Zebra Finch (possibly my favourite Australian bird).
Elsewhere 140 species inhabit southern Asia and Africa.
Family Motacillidae; pipits and wagtails
Australasian Pipit Anthus novaeseelandiae, alpine zone, Kosciuszko NP, New South Wales.
The only Australian pipit, found throughout the continent (and New Zealand), of the
66 grassland species found throughout every continent - and as for our one species,
those dwell from alpine (and polar) heaths to deep deserts.
And that concludes what has been something of on odyssey. I do hope at least someone out there found it worth persevering to the end! Birds tend to evoke such extravagances of enthusiasm  - but we might talk about other things here for a while...

NEXT POSTING THURSDAY 23 NOVEMBER, when I'll be back posting 'live'.
(And remember that you can get a reminder when the next post appears by putting your email address in the Follow by Email box in the top right of this screen.)


franinoz said...

Very enjoyable and informative. Thank you. We are hosts to our annual group of choughs and were pleased to see the group of eleven chase a very big feral cat 200 metres through the bush until it went to ground.

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks for this - I'm so glad you found the post to be of interest. I love choughs, and that story only increases my affection for them!