Birds along Ross River

The birds along the Ross River bike paths are a constant pleasure. Every time I ride there, there is something worth stopping to watch and (if possible) photograph. Here are three such highlights, all from the short stretch of river between the Nathan St and Bowen Rd bridges and all within the last month.


We often see one or two pelicans along this stretch of the river but larger groups are not so common. This group on the Annandale bank, opposite the end of Water St, had four or five members when I first saw it, late one afternoon, but more came in as I watched. I caught some of them doing weird things with their enormous beaks.

Pelicans on Ross River
Coming in to land

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Bee-eater lives up to its name

rainbow bee-eater
Rainbow Bee-eater

As I’ve said before, Rainbow Bee-eaters (Merops ornatus) take small flying insects on the wing, swooping from their perch and returning to juggle their prey for consumption. I saw this bird fly from our neighbour’s power line and was just able to get a shot through foliage a minute later. Its prey is, appropriately, a European honey-bee.

Rainbow Bee-eaters in the city

Birds against the sky
Rainbow Bee-eaters arriving for the night

Rainbow Bee-eaters, Merops ornatus, are amongst our prettiest birds and I always look out for them hunting on the Town Common or in parklands beside Ross River – even, occasionally, in my own garden. I know they nest in holes in sandy river banks but I never thought about where or how they might spend the nights outside of the nesting season until one of my readers sent me an email asking whether I knew about them roosting in a “huge aggregation” beside Ross Creek in the city. I hadn’t known, of course, and was quite surprised by both the communal roosting and the inner urban location.

birds on bare twigs
Gathering to roost

It took me a week to find an opportunity to see for myself. The location was a narrow fringe of trees at the edge of Ross Creek, on the South Townsville side (in front of the Telstra building), and when I arrived half an hour before sunset the birds were already beginning to fly in. Numbers built up steadily over the next 45 minutes, most of them in one wattle tree but a few in nearby mangroves. As the evening grew darker and cooler they huddled closer together and deeper inside the tree, making an accurate estimate of numbers impossible; 50 or 100 might be a fair guess, and more may still have been arriving when I left.

birds in foliage
Rainbow Bee-eaters amidst the leaves. How many can you see?

A bit of time on the net revealed that the communal roosting behaviour is well known and the urban location not too unusual. In a study of their roosting habits around Darwin by Bellis and Profke, for instance, we read,

While breeding, Rainbow Bee-eaters tend to roost in pairs or in their nest (Fry 1984). Non-breeding birds, however, roost in trees in colonies of 30 or more birds (Warham 1957; Kloot and Easton 1983; Garnett 1985; Saffer and Calver 1997). Birds travel to the roost from their foraging grounds between 15 to 60 minutes prior to sunset, eventually settle down before dark and leave at dawn the following morning (Lord 1933; Warham 1957; Kloot and Easton 1983).

Bellis and Profke counted up to 300 birds in one roost, while Graeme Chapman (also in NT) estimated 1,000 at one Mataranka site. (His page is worth visiting for his wonderful photos, too.)

Rainbow Lorikeets share this roosting behaviour and are such a common sight around the city at nightfall that I automatically assume that a flock of greenish birds heading for a tree at dusk is a flock of lorikeets. I will look more carefully in future!

birds in tree
Settling down …
groups of birds perching together
Rainbow Bee-eaters snuggled together in the foliage

Kingfisher, Bee-eater, Lorikeets and Ibis

Yesterday, for some unknown reason, was an exceptional day for birds in my garden.

Sacred Kingfisher on power-line
Sacred Kingfisher, Todiramphus sancta
Rainbow Bee-eater on power-line
Rainbow Bee-eater, Merops ornatus

The day began well with these two beautiful small hunters. They are both the same size (Slater’s Field Guide says they are both 23cm long, a little smaller than the Rainbow Lorikeet) but the Bee-eater (see its front view here) takes insects on the wing while the Kingfisher takes larger, heavier ground-dwelling prey such as grasshoppers and small lizards.

Our big paperbark is in blossom and the Rainbow Lorikeets have discovered it. Flocks of them hurtle into the tree and … vanish. They are so brightly coloured that they should stand out like clowns at an undertakers’ convention, but somehow they don’t.

Rainbow Lorikeet
Rainbow Lorikeet in paperbark blossom

As well as all these, I saw (but didn’t photograph) a Sunbird, some Sulphur-crested Cockatoos (they’re in town for the Dry season), a Cuckoo-shrike and our usual Honeyeaters. Finally, standing at my front gate I saw these Ibis heading for the mangroves of nearby Ross River.

Three Ibis in flight
White Ibis, Threskiornis molucca, in flight