About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Thursday, 18 May 2023

Gum Swamp, Forbes; a favourite wetland

Isn't Gum Swamp a quintessentially Australian name? I'm sure the fact that it already exists is the only reason I haven't come across it in the 'outback noir' genre of Australian crime novels that are currently so popular here, and which I read enthusiastically. It's the name of one of my favourite wetlands, and the one (outside of Canberra) which I've visited most often over the years. It sits just outside the very agreeable mid-sized town of Forbes (mid-sized by Australian standards anyway, home to some 8000 people), nearly 300km north-north-west of Canberra on the banks of the Lachlan River. It is in the Central West Region of NSW, close to the edge of the great western plains. Flooding is a surprisingly regular fact of life in Forbes - it has officially had a flood every seven years since 1887, though not since 1952 had it suffered from one as severe as that just last year, in November 2022. 

A portion of Gum Swamp as it looked earlier this month.

Gum Swamp is just outside the town limits to the south-west on the Newell Highway, and the turnoff along Warrull Road on the right is well-marked on the highway. (You can also access it from Greens Road, a few hundred metres further along the highway.) It is not a declared nature reserve but is managed, as far as I can tell, by the local council.

The approximate position of Forbes is marked by the end of the red arrow.

It was originally an ephemeral wetland, flooding when the Lachlan was high, drying out at other times. From the 1920s however it became permanent, with treated water from the adjacent sewage treatment plant flowing into it. In 2005 the plant was upgraded so that all outflow from it is now to 'sensitive waters standard'. 2.8 megalitres a day of this water now flows through the swamp daily, keeping it clean and full in all seasons and conditions. This means of course that it is now longer a 'real' south-east Australian wetland, which is ephemeral by definition, but it makes it a valuable drought refuge.

I've been going there for at least 30 years now, though until very recently the access was limited to a stretch of woodland and shoreline to the west and north of the Newell Highway, accessed by a dry-weather-only track and serviced only by an old concrete block bird hide. If that sounds disparaging, it isn't meant to - and I kept going back for (nearly) all those years!

The hide (and a birding group eschewing it!) in 2005. It was built in 1992 with
the support of the local National Parks Association, Shire Council and
National Geographic, among others. It doesn't seem very different now,
other than being painted grey.
However in the last decade or so I found myself visiting less frequently. The hide was becoming less salubrious (I don't demand much from a bird hide, but it was seemingly used for other pursuits as well) and there seemed to be fewer birds than in the past. The latter was probably due to the intense Millennial Drought, then the recent La Niña wet years when water across the landscape scattered the waterbirds. In May of last year (2022) we popped in on our way north to the Warrumbungles - and everything had miraculously changed! There was a totally new access which meant not having to dodge the speeding highway traffic, including semi-trailers, and good off-road all-weather parking. More importantly there were three splendid new two-storey hides and an excellent hard track system joining them. And there was some very impressive sculpture to complement it all. We were delighted, despite the cold rainy day. 
Here's the setup.
You might have to click on this map to enlarge it to see it properly. The old hide is
now called Sea Eagle, and the access was the track that leads to it from the highway.
The other three hides are new. Forbes is just off the map to the north-east.
Map courtesy Mapcarta.

The information signage is informative and attractive.

You might have to go there to read this one though!
The new hides were built in 2021 by a coalition of government, community and business groups.
Avocet and Stilt Hide (the others are of the same design). Its back is to the main swamp
(to the right of the photo) and it is facing a large shallow and presumably ephemeral wetland.
 
The view from upstairs in the Avocet and Stilt Hide on a very grey morning.
The view from Wood Duck Hide's upper level on a much nicer day.
Each hide is accompanied by an appropriate and delightful sculpture. That for Avocet and Stilt hide follows, then the others which I'll leave you to match to the hide names on the map above...

The artist is Brett 'Mon' Garling, who lives in the village of Mongarbon,
east of Dubbo. He has outdoor sculptures scattered across NSW, including the
Australian Maritime Museum in Sydney. You can see more of his work here.

However - and I am getting to the birds! - there is other art here as well. One is this impressive bird of prey, entitled The Hunter by Melbourne artist Damian Vick.

Made of steel with a 'rust and oil' finish, this powerful piece previously
stood in Forbes for a while. (Sorry about the rain drops on the lens,
which I'm sure you've noticed on previous pics too!)
But the dominating piece here is an extraordinary huge goanna called Varanus (which is the goanna genus name), 20 metres long and complete with hanging forked tongue.
The magnificent steel creation is the work of sculptor Glen Star.
However, appropriate as this artwork is in the setting (and I don't necessary think that a nature reserve for instance is the right place), ultimately Gum Swamp is about the real wildlife, notably of course the birds. And here I must confess to a certain frustration as to a relatively limited selection of photos to offer you. Partly this is because some of the more interesting things I've seen there were before I had a digital camera (slides of a male Musk Duck hunting Grey Teal chicks, and a female Musk Duck carrying her babies on her back, did not scan acceptably).  I've also mentioned the relative paucity of birds over the past decade or so. On our previous visit in 2022 there was a good number of birds present but we were on our way to somewhere else and the weather was truly vile (I've alluded to the rain on the lens but you can't see the vicious wind which accompanied it). To make up for that I very recently spent three nights in Forbes with a major aim of correcting this photo shortage for a blog post, but was unsuccessful; there were quite a few species present, but most were very distant near the far shore. I think I can explain this with the following photo from April 2023.
The stalks protruding from the water are of cumbungi, or bulrushes, Typha species.
There were no live cumbungi plants to be seen across the swamp, which previously
had supported good stands of this important habitat plant.
Compare that with this photo from last year, taken from Wood Duck hide. Compare too this photo with the view above from the same hide taken this year.
Magpie Geese Anseranas semipalmata and Grey Teal Anas gracilis in a sheltered
clearing in the cumbungi where they were protected from the unpleasant wind
whipping across the swamp. Dense stands of the cumbungi were present across the
swamp and were providing important shelter and habitat.
(More on the Magpie Geese later in this post.)
When Forbes (and many other places in the west of NSW and elsewhere) flooded in late 2022 I imagine that Gum Swamp was inundated at some depth for quite some time, apparently enough to kill, at least temporarily, the cumbungi. I am of course speculating and if you have other information I'd be glad if you could let me know, either via a message below or my email, also at the end of the post. Whatever the cause I'm assuming it will grow back eventually and I look forward to that. Now it's time finally for some birds without too many more words from me!
Hardheads Aythya australis. (This is an old shooters' name and hardly seems useful or appropriate now.
I think the alternative name of White-eyed Duck is more helpful, though admittedly it only applies
to the male.) It is the only Australian representative of a nearly world-wide group of diving ducks.
Little Pied Cormorant Microcarbo melanoleucos and Pink-eared Ducks Malacorhynchus membranaceus.
These first four photos show the importance of the fallen red gum logs as habitat.
This timber is essentially waterproof and doesn't rot.
Pink-eared Ducks and Grey Teal. The very attractive and distinctive Pink-ears comprise a
single-species genus which evolved on the inland waterways as the continent dried out.
Australian Shovellers Spatula rhynchotis. Like the Pink-ears they have unusually large
bills for filtering small animals and vegetation from water and mud.
Great Egret Ardea alba; a familiar species across much of the world, but always
a strikingly beautiful bird. This one is showcasing the very cricked neck, courtesy of an
elongated sixth vertebra, which enables it to hurl its bill forward like a harpoon.
Black-fronted Dotterel Elseyornis melanops, a common member of an essentially coastal
family, which adapted to the inland waters of a drying Australia and evolved there into a
distinctive single-species genus. This one's shoulder patch seems especially richly rufous.
The woodlands support a good number of species too, depending on the season and the flowering. Here are a couple of pretty ordinary photos.
Rufous Songlark Cincloramphus mathewsi, a woodland migrant which breeds in the south.
White-winged Choughs Corcorax melanorhamphos attending to chicks in the big
mud nest which the group has built cooperatively, which defines just about all other
aspects of their lives.
Last, and probably least in terms of interest, but not in numbers, is the huge population of Feral Pigeons (or Rock Doves if you prefer, though I think this is best saved for their wild ancestors) which inhabit the swamp, roosting on the numerous drowned River Red Gum skeletons, and breeding in the hollows.
At least they attract, and help support, predators such as the Peregrine
and Black Falcons which drop in from time to time.
Before I end this too-brief an introduction to Gum Swamp, I must mention what I am sure is, in practice, for many of the waterbirds an extension of the swamp, the tranquil Lake Forbes which is central to Forbes and is just 3km from the swamp. Originally a billabong (or anabranch) of the Lachlan, it is now managed to provide a permanent lake. 
 
Which brings us back to the Magpie Geese, and time for a bit of background. The Magpie Goose is the only member of an ancient family of waterbirds - not true geese at all - which are common in the Australian tropics and adjacent New Guinea, but until recently extremely scarce in the south. In the nineteenth century they were common in the Lachlan catchment area but by the mid-20th century they were very rare indeed in NSW, due to heavy hunting and draining of wetlands. But by the end of that century they were starting to make a comeback. I almost doubted my eyes when, in 1996, a small flock flew over Gum Swamp while I was there; they were the first I'd ever seen in NSW. Over the next couple of decades I saw a few more in scattered places including Kyogle, Narrabri and Narranderra and it felt as though they were making a slow return.

Then, in the last five months I've seen them, including some large flocks, in Leeton, Lake Cargelligo and Gum Swamp - and Forbes. To me this is good news indeed.
Part of a flock of at least 35 Magpie Geese at the north end of Lake Forbes in April 2023, in the
middle of town. I'm sure that it's no coincidence that these were sheltering in and by reedbeds
(not cumbungi this time but a grass, Common Reed Phragmites australis, which provides the
same sort of habitat as the cumbungi). I'd be very surprised if these weren't the birds I'd seen
last year at Gum Swamp, displaced by the loss of the cumbungi there.
While we're on Lake Forbes, at this same north end along a walking track is some excellent information, presented with and by the local Wiradjuri community, about pre-European cultural life. It also involves some more lovely sculptures, such as these.
Goanna.
Playtpuses (it was getting late on an overcast day by now).
And my apologies for not recording the name of the artist - mea culpa!
And to end this post here's another water animal which is certainly present in Gum Swamp, where I've seen it but not photographed it. This one swam up to us as we stood on a little bridge over Lake Forbes, and beneath us.
Australian Water Rat Hydromys chrysogaster, or Rakali as it's becoming increasingly known.
This is an Indigenous name, though not one from around here.
If you love pottering around wetlands as much as I do, you must make your way out to Gum Swamp some time, and take in some of Forbes, especially Lake Forbes, while you're about it. You may well find that it's a place you'll feel you need to come back to. I do.

NEXT POSTING THURSDAY 8 JUNE
 
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Thursday, 27 April 2023

Red Birds Rock It#2: from beaks to feet

In my last post I explored how, why and where some birds have red feathers. The same carotenoids have been harnessed to make other body parts, especially skin, also glow to create a striking effect with the same message - "I am so fit that I have lots of spare energy to spend in making these luxury pigments, with the sole purpose of impressing you".

Rainbow Lorikeet Trichoglossus moluccanus, Emerald Botanic Gardens, central Queensland.
Not only does this spectacular though common (and rapidly spreading) parrot have gorgeous
red-orange breast feathers, but a lovely red bill as well. The bill structure is made of bone - it is derived
from reptile jaws after all - but the covering is not skin (which is made of collagen) but a tough
layer of keratin, like scales and feathers.
Here are some more birds with carotenoid-enhanced bills. It was a revelation to me to find that in almost every case (across ten Orders of birds), both bill and legs/feet were enhanced in the same way. While the skin itself is formed of collagen, the scales that cover the legs and feet are of keratin, like the bill sheath. (Though as we'll see later in this post, collagen can also be bright red.) I've also just noticed that all of these example are non-passerines; I'm not sure what, if anything, I should make of that. We saw in the last post that passerines have no trouble in producing red feathers.
 
Dolphin Gull Leucophaeus scoresbii, Ushuaia, Argentinian Tierra del Fuego, a beautiful
gull from the shores of the far southern cone of South America.
Silver Gull Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae, an abundant gull around the coast
and in any suitable inland habitats of Australia. The missing leg is not unusual, and
could be the result of predation (including large carnivorous fish) or fishing lines.
Crowned Lapwing Vanellus coronatus, Buffalo Springs NR, central Kenya, common
across southern and eastern Africa. This bird had made her nest right by the road
and was threatening us for daring to drive near them.
Coscoroba Swan Coscoroba coscoroba, Puerto Natales, Chilean Patagonia.
This is the only swan in the world that is not in the genus Cygnus and it is smaller than all
the others. There seems to be no agreed understanding of where it fits into the bigger picture,
but its beauty could hardly be challenged. It is found in the lower third of South America.

Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher Tanysiptera sylvia, Julatten, north Queensland.
This beauty (what is it about red beaks and legs??) winters in New Guinea but
flies south across the Torres Strait to breed in very similar habitat, for no evident reason.

Perhaps imposing rather than elegant, this Stork-billed Kingfisher Pelargopsis capensis
  is equally impressive. This one was in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, but it is also found
across southern and south-eastern Asia.

Red-billed Tropicbird Phaethon aethereus, Genovesa, Galápagos. The three tropicbird
species occur in tropical oceans, this one being found around the Americas, across the
Atlantic and around the Red Sea. Its feet are yellow-orange rather than red, but
carotenoids are still involved.

Australasian Swamphen Porphyrio melanotus, Canberra. Very common and familiar
here, where it often crashes urban picnics. Part of a species complex that covers
much of the world.

Red-legged Cormorants Poikilocarbo gaimardi, Arica, northern Chile.
I think this is close to the most attractive cormorant I've seen - all those red highlights again!
It is found along most of the west coast and the far southern tip of the east coast of South America.

White Stork Ciconia ciconia Serengeti NP, Tanazania, one of the numerous
species which breed in Europe and western Asia and winter in Africa. This
one is of course also taking a break from delivering babies.
Red-legged Seriema Cariama cristata, southern Pantanal, Brazil.This and the
less ornate Black-legged Seriema are the only living members of an entire Order of birds.
It is a ground-hunting predator of the great grassland plains.
Quite a few pigeons have opted for the 'red front and back' option too. Here are a couple of Australian representatives.
White-headed Pigeon Columba leucomela, Nowra, south coast NSW.
In addition to the legs and bills, this very pretty pigeon has a ring of red skin
around the eyes - more of these coming up.
Wonga Pigeon Leucosarcia melanoleuca, Beowa NP, far south coast NSW.
A mostly ground-dwelling forest pigeon of the east coast forests, and
the only one of its genus.

    And finally a couple of birds which are fairly unusual in having red legs and feet but not red bills.

Pied Stilt Himantopus leucocephalus, Port Fairy, Victoria. This pattern (red legs, black bill)
is actually true of all four currently recognised stilt species around the world. When you've
got the longest legs for your size of any wading bird, you may as well highlight them!

Red-footed Booby Sula sula, Genovesa, Galápagos, above and below.
This, the smallest species of gannet and booby, has very impressively red feet, but
a pale blue bill. Body feathers can be either white or brown but the feet,
which play in important role in courtship, don't change.

As mentioned at the start, all of these red features (I think!) utilise the protein keratin, but many other non-feathery red bits of birds use skin, ie collagen. One unusual such feature (or usually a pair of features) is a wattle (or caruncle) which is a fleshy structure, often dangly, hanging from a bird's face or neck. Here are some red wattles hanging from the throat or neck, all purely decorative. Most bearers of them are large birds, perhaps because wattles on a small bird would not be usefully visible.
Red Wattlebird Anthochaera carunculata, Canberra. Abundant across southern Australia,
it is also close to being the largest honeyeater. The fact that it is not red and has
no significant association with wattle trees confuses newcomers to Australian birding!
Dusky-legged Guan Penelope obscura, Peruibe, south coastal Brazil.
Other guans - in the Neotropical family Cracidae - also have wattles.
Grey Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.
A spectacular crane found across much of eastern Africa, it is also the national
bird of Uganda.The wattles are inflatable sacs which feature in display dances.
Southern Cassowary Casuarius casuarius, Mount Hypipamee NP, Atherton Tablelands,
tropical Queensland. The bright colours and long wattles (which can be up to 18cm long)
suggest that this is a female, which is also a lot bigger than the male.
And here are some wattles growing by the eyes.
Wattled Jacana Jacana jacana, northern Pantanal, Brazil. They also sport an associated
big red frontal plate above the bill.
Wild male Muscovy Duck Cairina moschata, also in the Pantanal. This duck is found
throughout much of South and Central America, though not commonly now,
as it is heavily hunted and thus very wary. The caruncles on the face vary
but this pattern of beading around the eyes is typical. Females have feathered
faces, few if any caruncles and lack the prominent crest. Domesticated birds
vary in plumage, many being white.
Finally, a most unusual wattle, which is stiffly erect rather than dangling or warty.
Comb-crested Jacana Irediparra gallinacea, Kakadu NP, Northern Territory.
Some other birds, including domestic fowls, have such a comb, but theirs is
soft and floppy. (While not the subject of today's post, it would be remiss
of me not to point out the jacana's amazing toes that spread their weight so it can
be borne by the lily pads.)
A lot of birds have an area of bare skin around their eyes, often coloured red, which probably gives information about the fitness of the wearer. We begin with a couple of pigeons.
Bare-faced Ground Dove Metriopelia ceciliae, northern Chile.
This is mostly a bird of arid mountains.
Speckled Pigeon Columba guinea, Tarangire NP, Tanzania.
A familiar and striking bird throughout much of Africa below the Sahara.

Yellow-throated Spurfowl Pternistis leucoscepus, Tarangire NP again. The spurfowls are
a group of francolins, which in turn are close to the partridges. This one is from the
day north-east of Africa. The red face skin contrasts with the bare yellow throat patch.

Blue-naped Mousebirds Urocolius macrourus, Buffalo Springs NR, Kenya.
There are six species of mousebirds, the only members of their entire Order.
This one is found in north-eastern Africa and across the arid Sahel to the Atlantic.

Banded Lapwing Vanellus tricolor, south-west Queensland. This small mostly dry country
lapwing looks very imposing, even a bit intimidating, when viewed head-on like this.

The other red-faced species I want to feature here are all large birds, three of which contrast their red faces with white feathers.

African Spoonbill Platalea alba, Lake Nakuru NP, Kenya.
This is the only African spoonbill (apart from Eurasian Spoonbills on the Red Sea coast)
and is found across most of the continent.

The American White Ibis Eudocimus albus has a similar colour pattern to the previous spoonbill;
this one was in Costa Rica.
A couple of storks follow.
Brolgas Antigone rubicunda, central Queensland. Their red face includes a throat pouch which,
like that of the crowned crane earlier, is used in the ritual courtship dance.
Maguari Stork Ciconia maguari, Pantanal, Brazil.
A big stork of eastern South America, though not in the Amazon, whose red face
intensifies in colour while breeding.
And finally in this section, one of the world's most unusual and dramatic birds of prey.
The Secretary Bird (for the quills like an old-time scribe's behind the ears)
Sagittarius serpentarius, stalks the grasslands of most of Africa, hunting insects and
reptiles in particular, but also any birds and mammals they can catch.
I assume that the distinctive face patch has a role in courtship
but I can't find any information on that.
Which brings us to the last red topic for this post; that of eyes. By this we usually mean the iris, though sometimes it is used loosely to describe the skin around that eyes that we've just looked at. When I was first doing some reading for this post I found an assertion that the carotenoids which produce red colours in birds' feathers and skin are not found in the eyes, but that red eyes are the result of pteridines. I should have been more suspicious of such a simple and blanketing assertion regarding nature and in fact both assertions are incorrect. There is a lot we don't know about red-eyed birds, but a good start is in this very recent paper, available on line (Corbett et al 2022).

Here are a couple of examples that have been examined (as per Corbett et al) as examples of the complexities involved. (There is more information in Supplemental Appendix 3 of the Corbett paper but I can't find it anywhere; any help in doing so would be very gratefully received.)
A Black Swan's red eyes (Cygnus atratus, here in Canberra) are due to a combination
of blood vessels, melanins and a reflecting crystalline structure composed of cholesterol.
The red eyes of Zebra Finches (this one the Australian species Taeniopygia castanotis,
in the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia) have nothing in common with those
of the swan. They do however have pteridines, which here form a crystalline reflective
surface; however, other pteridines can form non-crystalline pigments!

And that's probably enough complexity for today, especially as we still don't know so much. Let's conclude the post (which is already very long, I freely admit) by just admiring a few more very attractive red eyes.

Fire-eyed Diucon Pyrope pyrope Torres del Paine NP, Chilean Patagonia.
These irises are really red (like the other species here!). This is a fairly common
New World flycatcher of cold southern Chile and adjacent Argentina.
Metallic Starling Aplonis metallica, Cairns, north Queensland.
Quite a few starlings have such near-manic red eyes.
Red-billed Oxpecker Buphagus erythrorynchus (left) and Yellow-billed B.africanus
searching a giraffe for ticks, Serengeti NP, Tanzania. I find it interesting that both their
bills contrast with their eyes (though the yellow bill of the red-eyed Yellow-billed Oxpecker
also has a red tip). These are the only two members of their family, which is related to starlings.

Tasmanian Native Hen Tribonyx mortierii, near Hobart. This large flightless rail
survived in Tasmania in the absence of Dingoes (and later of foxes).

White-winged Choughs Corcorax melanorhamphos, Canberra. These highly communal
mud-nest builders are one of only two members of their Family (with the Apostlebird,
another old Australian). Their staring red eyes bulge - I assume with blood - when
they are presenting their threat display to an intruder (me, in this case).

And that will do for today I think! I hope you're still reading (or at least looking at the pictures...). I'll leave the red theme next time but will return to it soon - possibly the one after next - to finish with the promised red-and-black post. The choughs give a good example of the effectiveness of that juxtaposition. 

Meantime, keep your eyes out for further examples of how birds wear red in your part of the world. I'm happy to hear from you any time.

NEXT POSTING THURSDAY 18 MAY
 
I love to receive your comments and in future will be notifying you personally by email when a new posting appears, if you'd like me to. All current subscribers have been added to this mailing list and have already been contacted. This will mean one email every three weeks at the current rate of posting. I promise never to use the list for any other purpose and will never share it.
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