Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Jacky Winter display 19th November 2012

Whilst at Gluepot I watched a pair of Jacky Winter, Microeca fascinans assimilis, perform a bonding, or bonding/territorial display. I was standing on top of a treed sand dune on Track 8 (33º 44’ 46.22”S  140º 12’ 37.43”E) at 0545 when a Jacky Winter took off from a branch in front of me and flew high into the sky. I did not hear the bird call but about 30 seconds later I saw it come back down and land on a horizontal dead branch.

A second bird then flew in and joined it and the pair began a display. They sat close together on the branch and went into a hunched back, rump up, wings slightly extend and tails fanned posture and reached their bills toward each other while wagging their tales from side to side. This behaviour lasted for about 3 seconds and then both birds took off and flew high as would a pair of Eurasian Skylark, Alauda arvensis. They hung for a few seconds at the top of the ascent before dropping back to a different but nearby horizontal branch. After this joint flight and a second display session both birds did one more joint flight/display session and then flew off together into the low Mallee cover on the sand dune.

Before I arrived or noticed its presence the first bird may have done more than one the one solo "skylark-like" display flight that I saw.
Second bird arriving after first solo flight by bird at top
Start of display

Both birds waging tails

Both birds in display position with continued tail waging

Second bird (left) starts to move away. At this point both birds took off to do a joint "skylark-type" display flight

The Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds [2002] volume 6 page 582 (HANZAB) has the following information under the heading “Sexual behaviour” sub-heading “Song-flights”:      “Individuals, usually assumed to be males, sometimes soar into the air while singing, reaching heights of up to 120 – 150 m and flying about apparently aimlessly, in manner reminiscent of Common Skylark Alauda arvensis (Boem 1956). Song-flights noted from mid-winter to spring, and thought to function as advertisement of ownership of territory (Marchant1985; North).”

It is possible that the first solo flight I observed was a presumed male doing a territorial ownership flight but the subsequent paired flights and displays could have been part of a display of morning re-bonding or flight and territorial ownership flight. At the apex of the three observed flights the bird/s did not “fly about apparently aimlessly” as stated in HANZAB but returned together directly to a perch and carried out a display. It is possible that both birds were carrying out a joint territorial ownership flight as mentioned in HANZAB but the bonding display following each flight would suggest a more complex reason for these particular flights.

On 15th November, 4 days earlier, I had seen a single Jacky Winter do the same “skylark flight” at 1644 near Froggy Dam at the junction of Gluepot Tracks 5,6 and 7. I did not see a second bird on this occasion or hear any call from the bird in flight. Perhaps a single bird in soaring flight is an “advertisement of ownership of territory” behaviour while a soaring flight at daybreak done by a pair of birds is a combination of dawn re-bonding and advertisement of ownership of territory?

On each morning of my stay Jacky Winters sang strongly from about 0500 until 0800 as part of the dawn chorus but after this they were more or less silent, as were most birds. Morning temperature were about 9º C and rose during the day to about 26ºC. Young Jacky Winters seen during the stay were well advanced in age and I did not see any sign of Jacky Winters flying to or from, or at, nests.
Young Jacky Winter with heavy breast marking

Young Jacky Winter with breast markings fading out

Young and adult Jacky Winter showing heavy spotting on back of young bird

Adult bird with hard-cased prey

All images © Jenny Spry

Gluepot in November

What you have to do first is picture Gluepot, a BirdLife Australia reserve in the Mallee woodlands of north-east South Australia, just north of Waikerie. It is an old grazing property some 37 km from west to east and about 14 km north to south covered mainly in regenerated Mallee, Casuarina and Black Oak woodlands and Saltbush and Blue Bush plains. Fire damage within Gluepot over the years has been minimal so some trees are thought to be hundreds of years old. The property is also surrounded by other conservation reserves so it is well buffered from external development pressures. From where you turn off the sealed Morgan Rd (B 64) it is almost an hour and a half drive on a dirt road (2 hours + at birding speed) through gated paddocks and nature reserve until you reach the Gluepot information centre (50 +/- km). You can find out more about Gluepot at;     http://www.gluepot.org/biodiv.html

Now, picture a campground in this magic area, Bellbird campground, with no other camper than yourself. Picture NO campers anywhere on Gluepot, not at Sitella campground, 15 km west of you, not at Babbler campground, 7 km south of you, not anywhere. You have the place to yourself. Picture Scarlet-chested Parrots, picture thousands of Masked Wood-swallows, picture White-browed Treecreepers in the campground. Picture getting back to camp after 10 hours of Mallee country birding in 26º sunshine, with a gentle breeze and high wafts of white cloud laced through an azure sky. Picture the camp chair in the evening light, no wind, and the last calls from Gilbert’s Whistlers, Rufous Whistlers, Striated Pardalotes and Weebills. Now close your eyes and imagine doing this for 6 days in a row. Sigh. Life is so hard sometimes.
The camp at Bellbird

Sunrise from the door of the tent

There were a few people looking at the Scarlet-chested Parrots when I arrived and they were all camped at Babbler, so I drove on around to Bellbird where, after the first night, I was the only camper. Imagine, by road the nearest people were the volunteers and rangers, about 12 km away. Each night I had the Owlet Nightjars and bats flying around my tent and in the morning I was awoken by the dawn chorus of Jacky Winters, pardalotes, Weebills, Crested Bellbirds and babblers. On the second night it rained about 5mm and soaked straight in. The roads did not become boggy but as the morning sun warmed the wet earth and vegetation the smell of freshness was intoxicating. Bliss, pure bliss.
Female Scarlet-chested Parrot

Male Scarlet-chested Parrot

I was also visited each day by hundreds of bees. To keep ants off my camp table I set it up with a plastic cup full of water under each leg. These cups hold about 200 ml each and every day the bees came in by the hundred and drained them dry. They were very amicable bees and never disturbed me, in fact they appeared most appreciative when I reached through the swarm to extract the few that had fallen in and were threatened with drowning.
Little Eagle of the Old Gluepot Dam site
This was the first time I had taken an iPad camping too. It was very pleasant to sit at the end of the day as the sun went down behind the Mallee and the clouds turned pink, to sip on a cool drink and have Greig or similar playing quietly beside me. I complimented Peer Gynt after the sun went down by being able to read The Silmarillion long into the night without having to worry about lanterns and moths. I do like my creature comforts when I camp.
Chestnut-rumped Thornbill with sugary lerp case

The birding was very hard work as everything was skulking around in the bushes and wouldn’t come out to play, probably because it is breeding season. There were young birds everywhere. I ended up with 59 species, missing only the Red-lored Whistler from the expected birds. This is one more species than I got back at Easter in 2010 so the birds were still all there, just hiding. Highlights were the White-winged Fairy-wrens down at Long Dam, the Jacky Winters who did a courtship flight and dance for me one morning, the many thousands of Masked Woodswallows that flew overhead each day, the male Rainbow bee-eater who decided that the middle of the sandy track was the perfect place to dig a burrow, the Brown Goshawk who thundered in, screaming as she came through the trees at Whistler Tank and scattered drinking honeyeaters in all directions, and the Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos that came into the visitor centre just as I was leaving.
Young Jacky Winter

Young Rufous Whistler

The Jacky Winter pair that displayed early one morning were very special. They flew straight up from the Mallee just after sunrise, in Skylark fashion, until they were mere specks in the sky. They did not call but hung for a few seconds and then dove back down to land on a dead branch about 10 cm apart. They then went into a hunched back, rump up, wings slightly extend and tails fanned posture and reached their bills toward each other while wagging their tales from side to side. They did this whole routine three times and then disappeared off into the Mallee.
Pair of Mulga Parrots

Australian "Mallee" Ringneck

I also wondered about the Miners. The electric fence and goat eradication has changed the Gluepot vegetation markedly. I remember my first visit back in 2004 when the undergrowth was very sparse and in poor condition but now it is coming back strongly and the cover is thick and flourishing. I am sure the rain has helped too but when one looks over the north fence into the Parcoola cattle station the difference is startling. Parcoola looks like it is still in drought with nothing in leaf or flower and bare dirt everywhere. The cattle and goats have stripped it bare.
Black-eared Miner

Relating this to the Miners, in the area north of Whistler Dam and east of track 4, I saw quite a few hybrid Black-eared/Yellow-throated Miners and a few that would pass for pure Black-eared but none that I would call pure Yellow-throated. From back in 2004 I have photos of pure Yellow-throated in this area and it was interesting to note the change in species mix. I know the hybrids will be around for a long time but maybe the change in habitat will benefit the Black-eared Miners and hold the Yellow-throated to the margins of Gluepot. I do not know about the area south of Whistler Dam or west of tracks 4 and 1 because I saw no Miners in those areas.
Rainbow Bee-eater trying to excavate a burrow in the middle of Track 8

Rainbow Bee-eater

And if you go to Gluepot, do drive right out to the north end of track 4, or better yet, walk the road north from Grasswren Tank hide to the electric boundary fence. Seeing the difference made by this fence and the active goat eradication from within Gluepot is staggering.
At the Parcoola electric fence line looking into Gluepot

At the Parcoola electric fence line looking into Gluepot

Looking into Parcoola from the same spot

Also, thanks to Suzi and Tony, the rangers, and the volunteers. As usual the whole place is looking beautiful and it is nice to know that there is such a special place to go birding when the city becomes just too much.
Female White-browed Treecreeper

Female White-winged Fairy-wren

Oh, and the brightest Splendid Fairy-wrens I have ever seen are everywhere.

Splendid Fairy-wren with all his flirt feathers raised
Striped Honeyeater
Red Wattlebird
Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater

All images © Jenny Spry