The Willie Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) is a small passerine bird that can be found across mainland Australia and up through New Guinea, Bismarck archipelago, Eastern Indonesia and the Solomon Islands. What it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in feistiness. While the sideways swinging of its fanned tail might be a salute to a nearby friend, attitude goes bad as soon as danger appears and wagtails are known for chasing and hitting much larger birds that threaten their nest. Willie Wagtails can be found in various habitats, yet seem to prefer open woodlands nearby rivers and wetlands where insects are plentiful. It’s not uncommon to see them feeding near cattle or kangaroos, using the animal’s back as an ideal vantage point while hunting prey disturbed by those grazers.
“But territorial possession can be more extreme than this. Two honeyeaters of large size practise the most intense resource defence of any birds on earth” – Tim Low, Where Song Began The Yellow-throated or Dusky Miner (Manorina flavigula) is one of the four colonial and co-operatively breeding honeyeaters in the genus Manorina. Closely related to the Black-eared (Manorina melanotus), Bell (Manorina melanophrys) and Noisy Miner (Manorina melanocephala) it breeds communally, with breeding pairs often assisted by other members of the group. Yellow-throated Miners inhabit dry forests and woodlands across Australia, foraging on insects, fruits and nectar, and although not as aggressive and troublesome as Bell and Noisy Miners, they defend their territory and food sources fiercely against any intruder.
Dales Gorge, or Ngirribungunha, is one of the most popular gorges in Karijini, not only due to the vicinity of the Park’s campground, but mainly because Circular Pool, Fortescue Falls and Fern Pool are hidden between its towering walls. However, less popular but equally exciting is the rim walk, a trail that leads through the Pilbara savannah along the edge of the gorge. With a bit of luck the elusive Rothschild Rock-wallaby (Petrogale rothschildi) can be spotted here around dusk and dawn, or some of the park’s many bird species such as this Brown Falcon (Falco berigora), perching on the branch of a dead snappy gum looking for rodents and reptiles.
“The chasteness of its colouring, the extreme elegance of its form, and the graceful crest which flows from its occiput, all tend to render this Pigeon on of the most lovely members of its family, and it is therefore to be regretted that, owing to its being exclusively an inhabitant of the plains of the interior, it can never become an object of general observation.” – John Gould, Handbook to the Birds of Australia, 1865
“Yet something. Something big and aware and hidden! He walked on, had walked a mile or so in the bush, and had just come to a clump of tall, nude, dead trees, shining almost phosphorescent with the moon, when the terror of the bush overcame him.” – D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo (1923) While the wet season in the Pilbara can be extremely hot, winter is the most suitable time to visit this beautiful region. We unfortunately experienced unusual high rainfall the week prior to our trip, and during our stay in Karijini National Park a cold and unpleasant easterly desert breeze brought temperatures to near freezing after sunset. For nearly five days, the constant wind was almost the only movement we experienced in and around our camp; no snakes, lizards, or dingoes to be seen, and even the region’s rich avian fauna seemed to be in silent hibernation. As campfires aren’t allowed in the park, water bottles, blankets and early nights were our solace, but not after the routine of a late walk in this silent bush. …
As a family of fishers, the cormorants are amongst the bigger birds found in Australia. The Pied cormorant (Phalacrocorax varius) is surely much lighter than the Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus), but with its 130 cm wingspan, 2.2 kg weight, and beautiful yellow eyepatch, this aquatic hunter is nevertheless impressive.
The Striated Heron (Butorides striata) is a common bird along the coastlines of Africa, South America and Australia, and in Roebuck Bay it spends a lot of time in the mangroves and on the rocks, hunting for fish in pools and creeks in typical stealth mode.
The Broome Bird Observatory offers tours in the different habits of Yawuru country, showcasing the enormous variety of birds in this beautiful corner of WA. I joined the tour to the saline grasslands, saltmarshes and claypans of Roebuck Plains Station, an iconic Kimberley property that covers 275,000 hectares and is home to 20,000 head of cattle. During the wet season the inundated plains are green and lush, abundant with fish, crabs and frogs, an enormous food bowl for thousands of water birds, but in the dry dust devils sweep through the vast open space, where water is only a memory of different times. The majority of birdwatchers who join this tour are in search of the Yellow Chat (Epthianura crocea), a strikingly coloured passerine bird that can be seen on the plains relatively easy, and as it is one of the must-see species, the Broome Bird Observatory even runs the specific Yellow Chat twitch. I had some good views of this marvellous little bird through the telescopes provided, but unfortunately haven’t been able to get …
When descending the red Pindan cliffs towards the beach and benthic flats of Roebuck Bay, one comes across several mangals and tidal creeks. The tropical mangrove forests near Broome consist of several species, such as the common grey mangrove (Avicennia marina), stilt-rooted mangrove (Rhizophora stylosa) and the red mangrove (Ceriops tagal) or lanyi-lanyi. Those forests are complex and rich habitats that require much specialization to live in, and many animals found in the mangroves are therefore absent or rare in other places. With their bright red colour, flame fiddler crabs (Uca flammula) are the most beautiful crabs of the mangroves by far. The typical big and oversized claw of this mostly vegetarian crustacean is waved to defend their territory rather than to crush food, while their remarkable appearance is further enhanced by eyes positioned on tall stalks, enabling them to detect threats from afar so they can disappear in their burrow quickly. The Mangrove mudskipper is another conspicuous creature that can be found in Roebuck’s mangroves. Because they are able to breath through their skin …
Ngaji Gurrijin! We’re back from our wonderful adventure in Australia’s North West. Back from a long trip that brought us to the Yawuru country of Broome’s Roebuck Bay. Although we didn’t have the intention to drive all the way to this magic Kimberley destination, the abnormally wet conditions in the Pilbara left us with little options. With the prospects of some lovely dry tropical winter weather, and the chance to stay at one of the country’s most beloved wilderness destinations in mind, the decision for this 988 kilometres detour was easily made. No big deal, we were planning to drive 2,894 kilometres anyway! Mud and holiday-destinations are not easily associated, however, in the case of Roebuck Bay it’s an entirely different story. Sediments trapped in the bay are carried in by ocean currents, forming mud flats where the particles settle in quiet waters. Cyclones, heavy rain and wind further accumulate deposits, while big tides and a shallow sloping coast expose large parts of these intertidal flats. Extraordinary rich in invertebrate life, the flats provide the most important …
With grevillea, hakea and eucalypts flowering in abundance, different species of honeyeaters (Meliphagidae) can be found feeding on their nectar. With thin curved bills and brush-like tongues, they’re probing flowers and lapping up large quantities of sweet liquid at a time. Most members of diverse family of passerine birds can be found in Australia and New Guinea, with the Red Wattlebird (Anthochaera carunculata) or Djoongong the largest species in Western Australia. The distinctive red-pink wattles or caruncles have lend this bird its common name, and as one of the noisiest inhabitants of our urban bushland they’re hard to miss when chasing away other nectar-feeding birds as lorikeets and parrots.
Rain is plentiful now Makuru is in full swing, but cool and wet days alternate with dry and sunny ones, leaving ample time to explore nature. As the rains have steadily raised water levels of lakes and swamps, large flocks of birds aggregate on its waterlogged shores, offering excellent opportunities for bird photography. On the Swan Coastal Plain a chain of wetlands runs parallel to the coast; many small ones have been drained, filled or cleared in the past for agricultural and urban development, but Herdsman Lake is the biggest still remaining. Known as Ngurgenboro to the Yellagonga Noongar, the lake is not only a place with a significant cultural heritage, it is also one of the last remaining wildlife havens in the metropolitan area. Apart from a strong supply of reptiles, including the notorious Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus), over 100 bird species have been recorded at Herdsman Lake. Waterbirds are particularly visible, amongst which the Black Swan, Yellow-billed Spoonbill, Nankeen Night Heron and Australian Shelduck I have written about before. The Ibis family is represented with …
“When perched on the trees or resting on the ground, it exhibits none of the grace and elegance of those birds, its short neck resting on the shoulders” – John Gould, Handbook to the Birds of Australia, volume 2 As their name suggests, Nankeen Night Herons (Nycticorax Caledonicus) stalk marches and wetlands during the dark hours of the day, searching for insects, crustaceans, frogs and fish. During daytime these stocky herons can be found roosting, heads hunched onto the shoulders, in the dense canopy of the numerous Swamp Paperbark (Melaleuca rhaphiophylla) trees that surround Lake Herdsman. Although this colony counts between 20-30 individuals, none of those secretive birds leave the thick cover easily, making decent photography a job for the patient. Apart from its nocturnal character, the cinnamon-brown colour has contributed to the other part of its name, as Nankeen cloth from Nanking resembles the adult bird’s plumage.
The Australian Shelduck (Tadorna tadornoides) is a gorgeous water bird. Its black head is separated from its beautiful chestnut coloured breast by a white ring, making it one of the easiest recognisable duck species in our wetlands. Shelducks are true wanderers, travelling long distances between the coastal lakes and estuaries and the inland Wheatbelt, however, some stay to breed in the metropolitan area during the winter months, such as this couple at the banks of Lake Herdsman. They pair for life, and the white eye-ringed female is constantly guarded by a watchful male – true love.
One of the most unusual residents of the Swan Coastal Plain wetlands is the Yellow-billed Spoonbill (Platalea flavipes). Instead of relying on eyesight when foraging for invertebrates in deep and muddy water, the spatula-shaped bill is equipped with papillae that detect vibrations of prey. It can often be seen walking slowly through the water, sweeping its beak from side to side in search for insects, crustaceans and fish, or just perching on a branch of a Swamp Paperbark tree (Melaleuca rhaphiophylla), such as this one on the banks of Herdsman Lake.
Perching on the branch of a dead Paperbark tree, this Welcome Swallow (Hirundo neoxena) is waiting to swoop down on the clouds of mosquitos that appear around dusk near the banks of Lake Herdsman, one of the most important wetland areas on the Swan Coastal Plain. The Welcome Swallow is called Kannamit by the Noongar people, who believe this fast and acrobatic bird is a sign of imminent rain.
The Swan River Estuary is the centrepiece of Perth. It’s a place of great cultural importance for the Whadjuk people, who believe the Swan River (Derbal Yerrigan) and its tributary, the Canning River (Djalgarra), were made by the dreaming serpent Waugal, creator of rivers, lakes and other landforms on its journey to the Indian Ocean. The same rivers offer recreational activities such as sailing, kayaking or scuba-diving to most city dwellers, while for me the surrounding trails, magnificent views and prolific wildlife are the biggest drawcards. From Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus), Western Australian sea horse (Hippocampus angustus) colonies, marine and estuarine fish to a huge variety of waterbirds, the biodiversity of this unique ecosystem is astounding. Photo-opportunities galore, like this portrait of an Eastern Great Egret (Ardea modesta) waiting on the shores of the Canning River jabbing at fish and frogs with its dagger-shaped beak.
“…en oock geen sonderling gedierte of gevogelte daer ontwaert, als ten principale in die Swaene rivier een soort van swarte swaenen, daer aff er oock drie levendigh tot ons gebragt hebben en wij UEd. gaarne hadden toe gestuurt, maar sij sijn alle een voor een korts naer hun herwaerts comste gestorven” – Iets over de reis van den schipper-commandeur Willem de Vlamingh, naar Nieuw Holland, in 1696 The first black swans (Cygnus atratus) were observed in January 1697 by Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh when venturing on a just discovered river in Western Australia. The black swans were a novelty, as back in those days everyone thought swans were white. The spooked expedition returned to the coast after this unsettling encounter, and baptised the river Swarte Swaenen Rivier (Swan River). The three swans taken on board of the vessels died before the end of the journey, however, a century later French explorer Baudin was more successful, bringing back those beautiful black birds to adorn the imperial gardens of Chateau de Malmaison.
The Common Bronzewing (Phaps chalcoptera) might be Australia’s most widespread native pigeon, it might also one be the country’s most beautiful. This stocky bird is rather cautious and seldom allows a close approach, but its deep and penetrating “oom-like” call always gives away its location – and with some tact and patience those birds guarantee excellent photos when the greens and browns beautifully blend with the shadows of dusk.
When in the Australian bush, most people have visions of marsupials and reptiles in their mind. Understandable, however, the feathered inhabitants of our reserves and parks often get overlooked, and this is a pity regarding the fact that their number and diversity are far greater than those of mammals and reptiles combined; and with around 150 different species there is an impressive number to tick off! The biggest and noisiest birds are fairly easy to spot and identify, however, the majority of birds are small, move around rapidly and are hard to see and recognise. This certainly goes for the splendid fairy-wren; not so much for the blue males in full breeding plumage, but for the plainer, brown-coloured females and non-breeding males. Add the fact that five different species live alongside each other in our local bushland and you’ll get an idea about how complicated identification can be. When several species are around in an area, useful clues can be given by the colour and plumage of accompanying males or the repertoire of songs. However, out …