Spice Finches in Ross River parkland

brown birds feeding on grass
Spice Finches feeding
brown bird - back view
Spice Finch (juvenile) in the long grass

These little birds, Spice Finches (Lonchura punctulata), look very much the same as sparrows but are even smaller (11cm to the sparrows’ 15cm) and their coloration is somewhat different. Juveniles are plain brown above and below, while the adults have chestnut faces and a scale-like pattern on the belly feathers.

Both are actually exotics which are well established here and both are technically finches – not that we normally think of sparrows as such.

The Spice Finch, also known as the Scaly-breasted Munia or Mannikin (see note on Birdway), is native to tropical Asia, occurring from India and Sri Lanka east to Indonesia and the Philippines. It has been introduced into many other parts of the world and feral populations are established in the USA and Central America as well as here. Slater’s Field Guide says that in Australia it is resident in coastal eastern Australia, mainly from Sydney to SE Queensland “but spreading”.

The species seems to be well established around Townsville. On checking older photos in preparation for this post I found that I had photographed them along Ross River on three other occasions and on the Town Common. This small flock was feeding in parkland beside Ross River, Mundingburra, when I spotted them, taking to the long grass and then to a leafless tree when I approached too close for their peace of mind.

brown finches on twig
Spice Finches (adults)

Leaden Flycatcher in Townsville

Leaden Flycatcher in the poinciana tree
Leaden Flycatcher (male) in the poinciana tree

About this time of year my focus (sorry!) shifts from insects to birds, because there is less insect activity in the cooler, drier weather and more birds in town as they retreat from the gradually drying inland country.

This bird, the Leaden Flycatcher (Myiagra rubecula), has been visiting us regularly over the last couple of weeks. They are resident in our region, not migrants as they are further south, and I see them occasionally in city parklands at any time of year but not usually in my garden.

As the name suggests, they hunt small insects on the wing, in the same way that our Rainbow Bee-eaters take slightly larger prey. They also hunt insects in foliage, often quite high in trees, and they are small birds (bigger than Sunbirds but smaller than Yellow Honeyeaters) so they are rather difficult to photograph – the shot above is the best I’ve managed so far, from what must be half a dozen opportunities.

Incidentally, I saw a pair of Spotted Turtle-doves in our palm tree this morning – the first time I’ve seen them since last April.

More information on the Leaden Flycatcher: Birds in Backyards.

Storm bird season

black bird in tree
Koel high in our poplar gum late one afternoon

The Australian Museum says:

Most Koels migrate from Australia to New Guinea and probably eastern Indonesia and even further north, but some remain in northern Australia. During breeding season, they are found in northern and eastern Australia, south to about Nowra, New South Wales, although occasional birds are encountered further south. … Common Koels are found in tall forests and are common in suburban areas.

In late September and early October each year, Common Koels arrive in Australia from their northern winter homes to breed. The Koels leave southern Australia in about March.

Birds in Backyards notes that:

The male Common Koel advertises its presence by a loud ascending whistle or ‘koo-el’, monotonously repeated; the call of the female is a repetitive ‘keek-keek-keek-keek’. Males often call throughout the day and well into the night.

Both of them are right on all points I’ve quoted. The Koel in my photo, taken two days ago, is one of the first I’ve seen this season; he’s a male (females are camouflaged in mottled stripes of grey-brown – here is one from a couple of years ago) and he has been calling constantly since he turned up. We sometimes call them Cooee-birds because of their call but they are more widely known as Storm-birds or Rain-birds because they seem to call even more often in the lead-up to rain.

Wikipedia says:

The true koels, Eudynamys, are a genus of cuckoos from Asia, Australia and the Pacific. They are large sexually dimorphic [i.e. male and female look different] cuckoos which eat fruits and insects and have loud distinctive calls. They are brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other species.

In Australia, their hosts are mainly large honeyeaters (especially Noisy Friarbirds and Red Wattlebirds) [maybe Friarbirds and Blue-faced Honeyeaters too?]. Unlike in other parasitic cuckoos, the young do not attempt to kill the host chicks. This trait is shared with the Channel-billed Cuckoo [see An Unexpected Visitor], which – as in the Pacific Koel – are largely frugivorous as adults.

The only area in which there is disagreement between my sources (and I can add Birdway and Slater’s Field Guide to the list) is the correct name for our visitor. Most say “Common Koel” and “Eudynamys scolopacea” but the common name varies wildly – Australian/Eastern/Asian/Pacific Koel – while the Latin names are just as bad – Eudynamys cyanocephalus/orientalis/scolopacea. I consulted my Friendly Local Expert and he was so thorough and lucid that I will quote his response directly:

You’ve unearthed a messy can of worms in the taxonomy of Koels, something that has been in a state of flux since 1766 with major perturbations in 1802, 1903, 1940, 1997, 2005, 2008 and 2011 with the total number of species varying from one to four. … The current treatment is to recognise three species and consider the Australian bird the same species as the ones that occur in New Guinea and Indonesia and call it the Eastern Koel, Eudynamys orientalis, but treat the ones that occur in India, China, Indochina and Malaysia as the Asian Koel, Eudynamys scolopaceus. (The third species, the Black-billed Koel E. melanorhynchus occurs only in Sulawesi and Sula.)

By “current treatment” I mean there is general agreement since 2011 among BirdLife Australia, BirdLife International, the IOC and Clements. So it will remain until someone does some more DNA work and upsets the apple cart again. The irony with all this is that Lynnaeus named it E. orientalis in 1766, so I hope he’s feeling smug.

The BirdLife Australia taxonomic list, published in June, shows that the Eastern Koel in Australia belongs to two races, the South-east Eastern Koel (Eudynamys orientalis cyanocephalus) and the Torresian Eastern Koel (Eudynamys orientalis subcyanocephala). The one we get here is the Torresian.

So there we are: the handsome, garrulous gentleman in my photo is a Torresian Eastern Koel, Eudynamys orientalis subcyanocephala. 

Red-tailed Black Cockatoos

The highlight of Thursday’s stop-over was actually nothing to do with insects but was discovering a pair of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus banksii, aka C. magnificus) feeding on the fruit of a Sea Almond tree (Terminalia catappa) in the park. The male, distinguished by bright red patches under the tail and pure black feathers around the head, immediately flew up to a nearby power-line but his mate, hungrier or braver, stayed in the tree and from only a couple of metres away I watched her pick a green fruit and munch through the whole thing.

black bird on powerline
Male Red-tailed Black Cockatoo
close-up of bird head with fruit
Female Red-tailed Black Cockatoo with sea almond
black bird in tree
Finishing off the fruit

There’s another photo of a female here, just to prove females do have crests.

There are six species of large black cockatoos in Australia, according to Slater’s Guide, but this is the only one found in North Queensland except for the Palm Cockatoo which is restricted to northern Cape York and, as this photo on Birdway shows, is distinctive enough not to be mistaken for our local species.

A wet-season visitor: Torresian Imperial-pigeon

Torresian Imperial-pigeon 7676
Torresian Imperial-pigeon, Ducula spilorrhoa, in paperbark tree

The Torresian Imperial-pigeon, Ducula spilorrhoa,  is an occasional wet-season visitor to our garden. We had a pair of them in February last year and this one has been here for almost a week so far. They usually stay high in the trees; this photo shows our current visitor in our paperbark but I have also seen it in our palms, where it has been feeding on the berries, and in the poplar gum and mango.

They are very big as pigeons go, about the same size as a big magpie or small currawong, and mostly pure white except for black tail-feathers. Clicking on the image above will take you to a larger version on my Flickr photostream and thence to other shots of it. Their call is a deep, loud coo-hoo. 

There is some debate over their proper name, as they are also known as the Torres Strait Pigeon, a sub-species of the Pied Imperial Pigeon, Ducula bicolor. More broadly, Ducula is a genus within the pigeon family Columbidae. All members of the genus are correctly called “imperial pigeon”, with or without the hyphen, and are large, tree-dwelling fruit eaters.

Shore-birds at the mouth of Ross River

cloudscape
Sand flats, mangroves, clouds and lots of fresh air at the mouth of Ross River

Thursday was a day of dramatic clouds so I made a spur-of-the-moment detour on my way home from the city, visiting the mouth of Ross River for the open space and big skies of the sand-flats. I found I had company – lots of shore-birds were out and about, most of them probing into the sand and mud for small prey.

Large brownish wader with long straight beak
Bar-tailed Godwit, Limosa lapponica

The two largest were both about the same size, i.e. a bit under ibis size, and colour. Both had long beaks but one was straight and the other down-curved like that of an ibis. They turned out to be a Godwit, above, and (I think) a Whimbrel – here is a better photo than I managed to take.

Three smaller species were more numerous but harder to identify. None were as big as the abundant silver gulls sharing the area.

mottled grey wader
A Sandpiper?
small grey wading bird
Wandering Tattler, Tringa incana
two small waders in shallow water
Stints or Sandpipers?

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not feeling too guilty about my inability to identify all of these birds because they are all from one extensive family (Scolopacidae) and all very similar in appearance, as a visit to this index page on Ian Montgomery’s Birdway shows. I would be rather embarrassed, however, if I didn’t know these impressive creatures:

Two pelicans swimming together
Australian Pelican, Pelecanus conspicillatus

Coucal pheasant

long-tailed dark bird in mango tree
Pheasant Coucal, Centropus phasianinus

Another bird story? What’s happened to the insects? Well, it still hasn’t rained, so birds are coming to town for the water but insects are not particularly plentiful. They will be back, however, in reality and on Green Path.

We spotted this visitor in our garden yesterday morning, on the ground near the swimming pool and then in the mango tree where I managed a couple of photos. We know the species quite well, but not in town: they are “common residents in long grass in woodland,” as Slater’s Field Guide says, and we see them far more often at Hervey’s Range or the Town Common.

We usually call them “Coucal Pheasant” but they are officially “Pheasant Coucal”, coucals being a family (Centropidae) closely related to cuckoos (Cuculidae).* They don’t share the cuckoos’ habit of getting other birds to care for their young, and they are much bigger than most cuckoos at 60-80cm (the Channel-billed Cuckoo comes close but the next best is the Koel at 39-46cm). Their range is very similar to that of the Figbird, i.e. around the northern coast from Sydney to the Kimberley, but extending further inland.

The one in my photo has the black breeding plumage on head and body seen in summer; in the cooler part of the year the head and body are reddish brown.

* Wikipedia: Coucal stills lists them as a sub-family of cuckoos but is out of date, going by Birdway.